Are We Doing Enough About The Distracted Driver – Does The Penalty Fit The Crime?

by Jeffrey A. Leikin | August 2nd, 2011

In 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that over 5,000 deaths a year in this country were caused by distracted drivers – that is, drivers using a cell phone, talking to their passengers, reading a map or newspaper, or eating or drinking their latest fast food purchase.  NHTSA also reports that 515,000 vehicle occupants were injured by distracted drivers.

With the increasing use of cell phones, particularly to send text messages, these numbers have to be on the rise.

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) has documented that an increasing number of states are implementing laws to prohibit the use of cell phones while driving.  But are we doing enough? The fines for distracted drivers are usually minimal, if enforced at all; and requiring preventative education or loss of driving privileges is usually not one of the penalties.

In Utah, the issue has been taken more seriously.  If a distracted driver (texting on a cell phone) causes an accident, injury or death it is regarded as a criminal offense, potentially punishable with jail time and/or license suspension. However, since the passage of this Utah law in 2009, no other state, including my home state of Ohio,  has followed suit.

Corporations are also taking the issue more seriously.  Monsanto and the trucking firm of Schneider National have instituted strict  -no tolerance – policies for their employees concerning cell phone use while operating vehicles in the course of their employment. However, these employers are the forerunners, and clearly still the exception.

Utah and these two corporations should be applauded. Their innovation should be publicized. After all, what is the difference between an intoxicated driver crossing the center line and killing an unsuspecting driver and a distracted driver crossing that same center line and killing that same driver?  The human costs and suffering are the same. Yet the intoxicated driver faces numerous legal battles while the distracted driver pays only a fine.  Should the penalty not fit the crime?  In Utah, and with some employers, it does!

Authored by Attorney Jeffrey A. Leikin