Bad Calls: Mixing Driving With the Use of Cell Phones

Author: Attorney George Edward "Ted" Allen, III

The use of cell phone while driving has resulted in an epidemic of accidents.  The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis reports that each year cell phone distractions cause 600,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries, and 3,000 deaths. This works out to more than 1,643 crashes, 940 injuries, and 8 deaths per day. [1]

The number of cell phone subscribers in the United States has skyrocketed from 44 million in 1996 to over 285 million in 2009.[2] The Insurance Information Institute reported that by the end of 2009, 152.7 billion text messages were sent in the United States every month, more than fifteen times the number just four years earlier.[3]

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Virginia Tech Transportation Institute have reported that as many as 25% of automobile crashes are caused by driver distraction due to cell phone usage; that drivers dialing a phone are 2.8 - 5.9 times more likely to crash/near miss; and that drivers texting are 23 times more likely to crash/near miss.[4]

As technology has advanced, in addition to making telephone calls, users are able to receive and send documents, e-mails, text messages, and even perform research from their hand held devices.  More and more people are using cell phones to conduct business while driving, and this substantially increases the risk of hurting or killing someone.  As a result of businesses requiring their employees to be available to conduct business on their cell phones, Courts have begun to hold employers liable for accidents that occur while employees are conducting business on their cell phones while driving.  This is important because the individual drivers who cause accidents are often inadequately insured; holding the employer responsible, too, often makes the business's insurance available in addition to the personal insurance of the individual driver.

In some personal injury cases, insurance company lawyers have argued that the injured plaintiff cannot prove that use of the cell phone caused the accident.  However, in recent years a number of research studies have shown that the use of a cell phone while driving affects the ability of the driver to safely operate a motor vehicle.  Several studies demonstrate the human brain to be incapable of fully concentrating on both driving and talking on a cell phone.  These two tasks require the resources of several identical areas of the brain.[5] The New York Times reported that one study states, "When people talk on the phone they are doing more than simply listening.  The words conjure images in the mind's eye, including images of the person they are talking to.  This decreases reaction time."[6] In addition, other studies show it does not matter if the driver is using a hand held or a hands-free phone, both are equally distracting.

In summary, in protecting accident victims, it is important that the investigation include the issue of whether the at-fault driver was engaged in any cell phone usage, and specifically whether that usage concerned the employer's business.  These issues should be fully explored where there is limited insurance coverage so the injured party may be fully compensated for the negligence of the at-fault driver.

About the Author: Ted Allen is a Richmond personal injury attorney with the law firm of Allen & Allen. For over 35 years, Mr. Allen has handled cases involving car accidents and tractor trailer accidents for Virginia clients.


[1] See National Safety Council "Cell Phone Fact Sheet".

[2] See statistics compiled by the CTIA The Wireless Association at http://files.ctia.org/.

[3] See statistics compiled by the CTIA The Wireless Association, from the CTIA Semi-Annual Wireless Industry Survey for Year End 2009, summarized in the report "U.S. Wireless Quick Facts Year-End Figures 2009" at http://www.ctia.org/advocacy/research/index.cfm/AID/10323.

[4] Based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Virginia Tech April 2006 study, "The Impact of Driver Inattention On Near-Crash/Crash Risk: An Analysis Using the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study Data", at http://www.nhtsa.gov/.

[5] David L. Strayer & Frank A. Drews, "Multi-Tasking in the Automobile", at www.psych.utah.edu/

[6] Matt Richtel, "Drivers and Legislators Dismiss Cell Phone Risks" (part of the "Driven to Distraction" series), N.Y. Times, July 19, 2009, at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/technology/19distracted.html?_r=1.

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