Smart Phone Use, Texting and Auto Accidents

Even before the rise of the smart phone, concerns arose over the use of cellular phones while driving, with their being blamed for a number of serious accidents.

Proponents of cellular phone use argue that there is little evidence that the use of a cellular phone while operating a vehicle is any more dangerous than other common activities, such as eating, having a live conversation, or operating a music player or car radio. Opponents argue that drivers are unduly distracted by their cellular conversations, and at a minimum should use a hands-free phone.

In driving simulators, cellular and smart phone usage is often assessed to be as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. Evaluations of accidents show a much lower rate of phone involvement than would be anticipated from the simulator statistics.

The most likely explanations for the lower level of accidents are that:

  • Unlike simulated drivers, actual drivers are good at identifying and reacting to distracted drivers, and
  • A distracted driver's attention can quickly shift back to operating a vehicle while an impaired driver is far less capable of responding to an emergency.

Nonetheless, many accidents are attributable to the use of cellular phones and smart devices while driving, and there have been numerous cases where a driver, talking on a cellular phone, drove directly into the back of a stopped vehicle or into a stationary object.

With smart phones now incorporating GPS, video, texting, web browsing, and many other potentially distracting features, concerns over safety have continued to grow.

A growing number of states have passed "hands free" laws that restrict the use of cellular phones while driving to hands-free mode, with drivers who are seen holding a phone while driving being subject to receiving a ticket.

  • Some of the laws are broad, encompassing most or all activity that may be performed on a smart phone.
  • Other laws are more narrowly focused on telephone conversations and texting, raising potential defenses to a ticket if a driver claims to have been using the phone as a music player or GPS.

Distraction of Drivers

Drivers who are using smart phones may become distracted by factors including the act of dialing, the conversation they are having, or the presence of the smart phone in their hand while they attempt to turn corners or engage in sudden driving maneuvers. Texting and dialing appear to be particularly dangerous, as the driver's focus shifts from the roadway ahead to the phone's tiny keyboard or touch screen.

As anybody can tell you after driving on a highway frequented by large numbers of cellular phone users, there is no question but that some drivers become very distracted while using the phones, with their distraction manifested by such driving errors as weaving or failure to maintain a consistent speed.

Is "Hands-Free" Safer?

It seems so intuitive that a hands-free phone would be safer for drivers than a hand-held phone, that some states have forbidden the use of cellular phones while driving unless the driver employs a hands-free device.

However, there is scant evidence to suggest that hands-free phones are actually safer; drivers have similar numbers of accidents while using either type of cell phone.

Responsibility of Employers

Following a number of accidents in which employees were making work-related phone calls while driving, some of the people injured in the accidents brought claims against the employers. In some of those cases the inured person was able to demonstrate that the employee was required to make phone calls while driving, and sought to hold the employer vicariously responsible for the injuries caused in the accident.

As a result, many employers have changed their policies and have instructed employees not to make work-related phone calls while driving, or have completely forbidden the use of smart phones while the employee is engaged in work-related driving.

As a basic matter of risk prevention and common sense, employers should impose rules that:

  • Prohibit employees from using cellular phones or smart phones for work-related reasons while driving, and
  • Require that employees to refrain from participating in electronic communication with fellow workers by phone, text, or other means, while the other worker is operating a motor vehicle.

Employers who are found to have contributed to the causation of an accident through an employee's cell phone usage risk being held liable for injuries that result from the accident.

Copyright © 2006 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.