In Virginia, 15-year-old Naeun Yoon was fed up with her brother. He had been picking on her as their mother drove them in the family’s minivan. When mom stopped the car on a busy road to quiet the bickering, both teens got out of the vehicle and started walking in opposite directions.
At that moment, a 33-year-old attorney was driving along the road talking on her cell phone. Lost in her conversation, she ran over and killed Naeun. Convinced she had just hit a deer, she continued her conversation and her trip to the office.
Because the attorney was conducting business in her cell-phone call, the Yoons sued the law firm as well as the attorney. A jury awarded the family $2 million. Cell phones and their electronic kin (e.g., pagers, Palm Pilots and BlackBerries) distract drivers to the point that electronically engaged drivers are four times more likely to have an accident than their unplugged counterparts, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study concluded that electronically distracted drivers are at least as dangerous as drunken ones.
A veritable anthology of horror stories can be culled from the employer liability cases heard in American courtrooms:
- Atlanta-based construction firm, Beers Skanska, agreed to a $5 million settlement four days into a trial in Georgia state court after the jury heard how one of its employees was reaching for a mounted cell phone when he slammed into the vehicle in front of him.
- Little Rock lumber wholesaler, Dyke Industries, paid a $21 million verdict to compensate a person hit by a salesman who was making a sales call on his cell phone.
- Smith Barney paid $500,000 to the family of a motorcyclist struck and killed by a Pennsylvania broker as he fumbled for his dropped cell phone.
In some states, legislatures have moved to stop the carnage by passing laws banning cell phone use while operating a vehicle. Texas does not have such a prohibition, although a measure (Senate Bill 154) has been introduced in the current legislative session. It is perhaps just one more horror story away from passage.
Among the current state laws:
- New York state was the first to pass a law prohibiting hand-held cell-phone use while driving, except during emergencies. The 2001 New York law does, however, allow hands-free phones. Violation of this law is a “primary offense,” meaning police can pull over gabby drivers just for talking on the phone.
- New Jersey followed suit with a similar law in 2004. Garden State drivers can’t be pulled over for cell phone use, but the infraction can be tacked on to another violation.
- The District of Columbia, also in 2004, enacted its Distracted Drivers Safety Act. Under this law, drivers are permitted to hold a cell phone only to make emergency calls, dial a call, or to turn the phone on or off. Otherwise, a hands-free device must be used.
- California passed a law that will make using conventional mobile phones while operating a motor vehicle illegal, effective July 1, 2008. Drivers instead must use a hands-free device while driving.
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