Texting While Driving: The Dangers and the Laws

This article was first published January 18th, 2011. Some of the laws may have changed since this that date.

A truck driver in Polk County killed two women when he was texting on the road, ran a red light and hit eight cars. One was the daughter of Russell Hurd, who was riding with her fiancé on the way to plan their wedding at Walt Disney World, where the couple worked.

Hurd’s daughter was 26 years old. Since the truck accident in January 2008, Hurd has issued a call to legislators across the country to pass laws prohibiting drivers from talking or texting.

Texting While Driving Bills in Florida

More than a dozen vehicle safety bills regarding talking and texting while driving came under consideration in the 2010 session in Florida. All died in committees this year. Among the stated concerns was striking a balance between banning dangerous activity and personal responsibility of drivers. Some feel drivers should be given the personal freedom and ability to remain individually responsible for making safe decisions behind the wheel.

Additionally, legislators wonder where to draw the line among distracting activities, which may include scrolling through a playlist on an mp3 player, setting a GPS destination, reading an e-mail on a phone, eating or other activities. There are also questions over the enforceability of a texting ban, if drivers hold their cellular phones lower, out of sight, which can potentially increase the time the drivers have their eyes off the road.

Distracted Driving Laws in Other States

The Hurds have, however, helped to get legislation passed in Maryland, which is among the 30 states in the country to ban texting while driving. Eight states and Washington, D.C. have banned the use of handheld cell phones while driving.

While no state bans all use of cellular phones (including hands-free devices), many prohibit all use by certain drivers, such as novice drivers and bus drivers. Some laws are primary, meaning that the driver could be pulled over and ticketed only for the phone offense; other states require the driver to be pulled over for another moving violation in order to receive a phone ticket.

Similar to Florida, measures failed in Alabama because legislators could not agree on how to enforce the law.

Call for Federal Legislation

Hurd has shared his story with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at a Washington summit on distracted driving. Unfortunately, Hurd’s story is not unique; according to statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2008:

  • 20 percent of all car accidents were the result of drivers paying attention to something other than driving
  • 6,000 people were killed in crashes caused by distracted motorists
  • Drivers who eat, text or groom themselves while driving are four times more likely to crash than those who concentrate solely on the road

The U.S. Department of Transportation contends that distracting activities are not limited to cellular phone use but also include:

  • Reading maps or other materials
  • Talking to passengers
  • Eating or drinking
  • Applying makeup or shaving
  • Activities that cause drivers to take their eyes off the road, hands off the steering wheel or concentration off of driving

U.S. News says after hearing from families of victims of fatal texting accidents, LaHood issued anti-texting rules for commercial truck and bus drivers. He also established FocusDriven, a new group organized to make distracted driving part of driver’s education classes. His ultimate goal is to have no distractions at all in cars, even if it means developing a device that shuts down phones and digital devices when the engine is started. He urges police to enforce bans against hand-held cellphone use and is seeking a federal ban against texting while driving.

The trucker who killed Hurd’s daughter was not speeding or driving under the influence. Yet he never even applied his brakes because he was not paying attention to the road, noted a Florida Highway Patrol.

Anyone who has been injured by a distracted driver should contact a skilled personal injury lawyer to discuss whether they have a claim for compensation. An experienced attorney can explain how to gather and preserve crash and medical evidence and sue for damages if a claim exists.