It has been nearly a year since a man was charged with two counts of manslaughter and reckless driving for a 2018 accident in Fairfield. The driver, who was on his phone, struck and killed Jaime Manuel and CHP Officer Kirk Griess at a traffic stop. Distracted driving has been an issue for years, and it seems the more our cell phones are able to do, the more tempting it can be to use them while driving. Sadly, in the worst cases, this type of distracted driving costs lives.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that distracted driving claimed the lives of 3,166 people in 2017 alone. Distracted driving can include any activity that directs the driver’s attention away from driving—from eating a snack or messing with the radio to texting or talking on the phone. Though many things can cause distractions, phone use is particularly concerning to the NHTSA, especially texting. They estimate that reading or sending a text diverts your eyes for about five seconds. That means if you’re driving 55 miles per hour, you will drive the length of a football field without watching the road. It is estimated that 1 in 4 accidents in the U.S. is now caused by texting while driving. Sadly, that deathly car accident in Fairfield was not the only one of its kind.
Obviously, drivers shouldn’t be using their phones (or participating in other distracting behavior) while driving. And it is important to be aware of the legal implications of doing so. California law prohibits all drivers from using handheld phones while driving. It goes a step further for drivers under 18 years of age by also prohibiting them from using hands-free cellphones while driving. An additional law specifically bans texting and any other use of a wireless device while driving for all drivers. However, the punishments for violating those laws are pretty minor. Currently, the only consequences in place for violation of those laws are fines starting at just $20.
Distracted driving is killing people. Are $20 fines enough of a deterrent? Many, including Griess’ widow and the California Highway Patrol, say that something more must be done to put an end to distracted driving. They claim that the current laws do not effectively deter people from cell phone use at the wheel. The CHP is not alone in this belief.
In early 2019, AB 47 was introduced to the California House. The proposed bill would add a point to any driver’s record who is caught on their phone while driving. It is hoped that this will be a stronger deterrent than the current fines—and ultimately save lives. The bill was passed unanimously by the House Assembly in May and sent to the Senate, where it has been referred to the committee on transportation. If the bill passes, it will go into effect January 1, 2021.
We advise drivers to keep an eye on the proposed legislation in order to know the most current legal repercussions of cell phone use while driving. But above all, we urge all drivers to put their phones down and to encourage their friends and family to do the same. As personal injury lawyers, we have seen the sad effects of distracted drivers all too often. Believe us when we say that arriving safely at your destination is far more important than the text you hear coming in.