In December 2017, the Columbia, Missouri City Council quietly approved a potentially game-changing law aimed at combating distracted driving.
The new ordinance prohibits any behavior that takes the operator’s attention away from driving. In addition to cell phone use, that definition could include rolling down the window, looking out the window, or talking with passengers. The new law is part of the city’s push to end traffic deaths in Columbia by 2030. Some lawyers immediately branded the law as overly broad and unenforceable. But the bill’s drafters countered that the ordinance is a secondary law, which means that officers cannot pull over motorists simply for being distracted. And, in court, judges must conclude that the defendant was not operating the vehicle in a careful and prudent manner.
In 2015, distracted drivers caused 15 percent of the serious injury car crashes in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Columbia’s new law is not unique, because it closely mirrors the one in Georgia. Section 40-6-241 requires drivers to use “due care” when operating motor vehicles. This law led to the prosecution of a man for eating a cheeseburger while driving in 2015, but Cobb County authorities later reduced the citation to a warning. If the Columbia law holds up in court, other jurisdictions with similar visions, such as New York City, could enact similar laws.
Almost everyone agrees that distracted driving is not limited to hand-held cellphone use. These devices garner much of the attention simply because they combine all three forms of distracted driving, which are:
- Cognitive (taking your mind off driving),
- Manual (taking one hand off the wheel), and
- Visual (taking your eyes off the road).
To address the cell phone/distracted driving issue, most automakers now incorporate hands-free Bluetooth devices in passenger cars. These devices may satisfy the local traffic ordinance, but they are still evidence of distracted driving in civil court, as a car accident lawyer Atlanta GA relies on can attest.
Establishing Liability for Damages
Many states have negligence per se. The negligence per se shortcut may even be available in non-cell phone distracted driving crashes. In these cases, victim/plaintiffs must prove that:
- The tortfeasor (negligent driver) violated a safety ordinance or law, such as distracted driving, running a stop sign, or driving under the influence, and
- That violation substantially caused the victim/plaintiff’s injury.
In some jurisdictions, negligence per se is absolute proof of negligence; in other places, the doctrine is only a presumption of negligence.
If this shortcut is unavailable, victim/plaintiffs are still entitled to damages if the tortfeasor’s conduct fell below the standard of care, and the lack of care both actually and foreseeably caused the damages. In both cases, these damages generally include compensation for both economic losses and noneconomic damages.
Thanks to our contributors from Butler Law Firm for their insights into distracted driving.