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Should Laws Broaden the Definition of ‘Distracted Driving’?

Posted on July 9, 2014 by Kelly Wolford
motor vehicle accident attorney Albany NY

A New Jersey lawmaker made national headlines in November 2013 when he introduced a bill that would have significantly broadened the definition of “distracted driving” in that state in an effort to prevent those types of motor vehicle accidents.

The bill would have prohibited drivers from engaging in “any activity unrelated to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle on a public road or highway,” a New York CBS News affiliate reported.

Even though the bill did not become a law, it raised an interesting question: Should distracted driving legislation in New York State and elsewhere in the U.S. address all types of distractions instead of focusing merely on talking on cell phones and texting while driving?

New York State Distracted Driving Laws Focus on Technology

In New York, as in many other states, distracted driving laws focus solely on technology-related distractions. Under current state law, it is illegal for drivers to use hand-held devices to talk on cell phones while driving, and texting and similar uses of hand-held electronic devices is also banned.

Of course, there are many solid reasons for making the use of electronic communication devices while driving the focus of legislation. For instance, as a widely quoted Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study found, reaching for a phone, dialing and texting can raise the risk of getting into a crash threefold.

Still, there are many other forms of distracted driving that should not be ignored.

Put Down the Sandwich, Focus on the Road

According to Distraction.gov, an official U.S. government website, “Distracted driving is any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.” (Our emphasis added.)

In addition to texting and talking on cell phones while driving, the website lists other distractions as:

  • Eating and drinking
  • Talking to passengers
  • Grooming
  • Reading (such skimming a map)
  • Using a navigation system (such as a  GPS device)
  • Watching a video
  • Adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player.

Arguably, you could add several other distractions to that list, including:

  • Smoking a cigarette
  • Handling pets
  • Looking at other accidents, or “rubbernecking.”

There is research that indicates that drivers who succumb to these types of distractions can actually be just as dangerous as those who text or talk on cell phones while driving.

For example, ABC News reported in 2013 about an Australian study that found that children can actually be “12 times more distracting” to a driver than talking on a cell phone behind the wheel. In fact, the researchers determined that the average parent will take their attention off the road to deal with children for nearly three-and-a-half minutes over the course of a 16-minute trip, according to ABC.

Additionally, a British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported in 2012 about a University of Leeds study which found that the reaction times of drivers who eat while at the wheel are about 44 percent slower than usual, while those who sip a drink while driving are about 22 percent slower in their reaction times.

NY Law Does Not Address Other Forms of Driver Distraction

New York State prohibits “reckless driving.” In 2010, the state also enacted Hayley and Diego’s Law to crack down on drivers who injure pedestrians and bicyclists due to the “failure to exercise due care.”

Still, there is no law that specifically addresses the other kinds of distracted driving listed above.

Perhaps it is time to consider additional measures. After all, if the goal is to protect the public from the dangers of distracted driving, it would make sense to address all forms of distracted driving, including those which may be equally as dangerous (if not more dangerous) than texting and talking on cell phones.

With all of this said, it is important to keep in mind that even if a form of distracted driving is not specifically punishable under New York State criminal law or a local ordinance, it may still be possible for the victim of a distracted driver to seek justice through the civil justice system in our state.