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Cellphones And Car Accidents In Maryland, D.C. And Virginia

A 1997 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine linked the use of cellphones in motor vehicles to a quadrupled risk of collision. Injuries are likely being caused by the use of cellphones and other distracting technology. Following such an article one would think that there would be at least some talk of legislation restricting cellphone usage by the drivers of automobiles. With the exception of a few local ordinances — D.C. included — nothing of the sort is happening. Americans have essentially total freedom to operate their phones while driving. Some countries forbid motorists from placing calls or participating in phone conversations while vehicles are in motion. By contrast, the United States has virtually no laws explicitly restricting cell phone use while driving. Although American police technically can arrest cellphone-using drivers under a law prohibiting “reckless and inattentive driving,” it is rarely enforced. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) isn’t sure that hands-free legislation is the answer. It says such laws assume that most cellphone-related accidents occur when a driver is dialing or holding the phone, when research suggests that the general distraction of being engaged in conversation is far more often to blame. Before any hands-free legislation is seriously considered, the NHTSA suggests a thorough evaluation of how effective such laws in foreign countries have been at reducing crashes.

The popularity of phone-based personal digital assistants and internet-enabled cell phones may only add to the problem. Will busy workers be able to resist the temptation to conduct a quick Web search or reply to that e-mail during a monotonous morning commute? Driving on the information superhighway while driving to work may be going too far. Who knows what the topic of the searches will be. And, who knows what websites will be browsed. Just how many other things can a driver do while operating a motor vehicle? Why can’t we just pay attention to the ROAD? Traditionally, defensive driving has been touted as the best approach to highway safety. It requires a degree of attention that may be virtually impossible if a driver is involved in “virtual reality.” Already, crashes and injuries are being attributed to the inattention of drivers who are too wrapped up in cellphone conversations to avoid hazards or dangers on the highways. When the cellphone provides access to chat rooms, stock quotes, search engines, and other interactive Web opportunities, what will happen? The only remedy for the injured victim of an inattentive driver is the personal injury claim or lawsuit which would be based on the careless and negligent operation of the vehicle while the driver was distracted.

In one respect a cellphone user who causes an accident actually provides some effective proof of the cause of the accident. Cellular phone records are so precise that it is relatively easy, during the litigation process, to obtain very detailed records of the use of the cellphone in the vehicle. These records usually contain the actual times of the calls, the other numbers called or calling, and details of the location of the phone during the call. The cell phone usage of the careless driver can be literally tracked by the records that are generated by the cellular phone service used. This tracking can demonstrate a pattern of use and even the specific use at the time of the accident. It might even turn up an unusual witness — the other party to the cellphone conversation who heard the driver say something significant before or after the crash.