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Texting, driving and court judgment

September 12, 2013

A tragic accident occurred in 2009 in New Jersey (NJ), in which a teenager driving a vehicle ran over the road centre line, shortly after sending a text message, and struck a motorcycle, seriously injuring the persons riding the motorcycle. Each motorcycle rider lost a leg in the accident. The case was taken to the court by the aggrieved persons.

Last month, the NJ court gave a ruling which should be an eye-opener for us here in Karachi.

The court ruled that someone who ‘knowingly’ distracts a driver via text can be held responsible if the message leads to a crash. The ruling said: “We hold that the sender of a text message can potentially be liable if an accident is caused by texting, but only if the sender knew or had special reason to know that the recipient would view the text while driving and thus be distracted. We conclude that a person sending text messages has a duty not to text someone who is driving if the texter knows, or has special reason to know, the recipient will view the text while driving.”

The ruling further said: “The sender should be able to assume that the recipient will read a text message only when it is safe and legal to do so, that is, when not operating a vehicle. However, if the sender knows that the recipient is both driving and will read the text immediately, then the sender has taken a foreseeable risk in sending a text at that time. The sender has knowingly engaged in distracting conduct, and it is not unfair also to hold the sender responsible for the distraction.”

Texting a message means that there is another person at the end of the other line, who is always ignored. In the NJ accident, the teenager was texting his friend back and forth. It was argued in the court that the friend of the teenager with whom he was texting was ‘electronically present’ in the car and, therefore, aided and abetted the accident. In 2006, a famous study, conducted by the University of Utah, investigated the performance of a cellphone driver and a drunk driver. The study found that the impairments associated with using a cellphone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk, with blood alcohol concentration at 0.08pc weight/volume. The study also found that whether the driver was speaking on a hands-free or holding the phone, the result was exactly the same. The problem is not the holding of the phone in the car, but the driver’s mind being elsewhere. Voice-operated texting while driving is also unsafe.

The UN Assembly resolution encourages governments to take appropriate action to discourage distractions in traffic, including texting while driving.

A US National Safety Council report shows that drivers using hands-free phones (and those using handheld phones) have a tendency to ‘look at’ but not ‘see’ objects. Estimates indicate that drivers using cellphones look but fail to see up to 50 per cent of the information in their driving environment.

Psychologists have demonstrated that people suffer significant impairment when they use a cellphone while driving. They found that drivers engaged in hands-free communication create weak memories of objects in the driving environment, suggesting a great deal of attention is drawn away from the road. Drivers cannot create a durable memory of objects they see, when using cellphones.

Teenagers and mothers in Karachi are urged not to text a person driving a vehicle. The worth of life is much more than an sms. The Sindh government should ban the use of cellphones while driving, as has been done in many parts of the world.