Is Texting While Driving The New Drunk Driving?

Earlier this year, Apple was sued in the California class action of Ceja v. Apple, BC #647057, Superior Ct. of California, County of Los Angeles. In the Ceja suit, it was alleged that Apple is liable for automobile-related injuries and death. The “theory of recovery” against Apple is fairly straight-forward: 1) since 2008, Apple has possessed the “lock-out” ability to prevent texting while driving; and, 2) it is liable because it failed to do so. Whether or not the plaintiffs prevail against Apple, the national trend is toward stricter anti-texting laws and harsher consequences for those who text and drive. While this post does not intend to suppose a moral equivalence between drunk driving and driving while texting, the building momentum against texting while driving is reminiscent of the development of the anti-drunk driving laws and message.

It was not until 1938 when 0.15 became the first commonly-used blood alcohol level for intoxication (nearly two times today’s legal limit).  Today, driving with a .08 will land you in a Louisiana jail. Many states such as Louisiana have enacted punitive damage statutes that allow for substantial money awards against drunk drivers. For instance, under Civil Code Article 2315.4, punitive damages (a.k.a. “exemplary” damages) are available against any driver whose intoxication causes injury. The message has been heard: drunk driving is illegal and may costs you your freedom, your money, or both.

The prohibitions against texting while driving (and even the broader category of “distracted driving”) are expanding. The State of Washington was the first state to ban texting while driving in 2007. Almost every state has since followed suit. Attitudes are also changing, perhaps in response to public service announcements and targeted media campaigns.

While once legal here, Louisiana, at least on paper, now completely bans texting while driving under La. R.S. 32:300.5. This law was later expanded to prohibit driving while accessing, reading, or posting to a “social networking site.”  Last year, related fines and penalties were increased.

The practice of texting while driving has been said to involve three forms of distraction:

           1. Manual distraction- taking your hands away from the wheel;

           2. Visual distraction- diverting your eyes away from the road;

           3. Cognitive distraction- taking your attention away from safely driving.

In the last few years, at least two drivers (one in New Jersey and one in Pennsylvania) have been sued under allegations that they are liable for injury because they sent texts to persons they knew or should have known were driving. Kubert v. Best, 75 A.3d 1214 (2013) and Gallatin v, Gargiulo, #10401 of 2015, Lawrence County, PA.

At some point, auto manufacturers and phone/electronics suppliers may choose or be forced to render texting while driving impossible. Until such a time, the trend against texting while driving continues.