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Cogan’s Corner – Personal Injury and Distracted Driving

The following Cogan’s Corner column appeared in the September 18, 2012 edition of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

Many trends emerge with personal injury and distracted driving

The smartphone concept, the concept that could combine the utility of the telephone with the sophistication of a computer, was first introduced in 1997. It was 10 years later when Apple’s iPhone exploded on the scene and gave consumer unparalleled tools for instant communication. With it came the irresistible temptation to minister to the cellphone as if each call, text or e-mail represented a newborn baby’s cry. This compulsion has led to an alarming increase in motor vehicle accidents.

Statistics from the National Safety Council (NSC) implicate distracted driving from cellular phone use as a contributing factor in one quarter of all traffic accidents. This accounts for nearly 1.2 million accidents each year in the United States. At least 30 scientific studies and reports have described how cellphone use of any kind, hands-free or handheld, requires the brain to multitask—a process it cannot safely perform while driving. According to the NSC, “cellphone use while driving not only impairs driving performance, but it also weakens the brain’s ability to capture driving cues.” Drivers who use cellphones tend to “look at” but not “see” up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment.

This manifests itself in a form of inattention blindness, resulting in drivers having difficulty monitoring their surroundings, seeking and identifying potential hazards and responding to unexpected situations—essentially wiping out basic good driving practices.

Even though surveys show that most drivers believe using a cell-phone will driving is dangerous, the majority polled admit they regularly talk to text while driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 11 percent of all drivers are using cellphones at any given time.

The threat to public safety posed by distracted driving is so prevalent that on Sept. 6, the Governors Highway Safety Association, comprised of the top highway safety officers from each state, made a sweeping policy change supporting state legislation that bans handheld cellphone use. The group also opposed text messaging for all drivers, electronic devices used for entertainment purposes with video screens and prohibiting school bus drivers from text messaging or using electronic devises except in an emergency.

For its part, in July, Illinois passed legislation barring commercial drivers from texting or using handheld cellphones while driving, prohibiting use of cell-phones within 500 feet of an emergency scene and prohibiting use of cellphones in all roadway work zones, not just those with reduced speed limits. Already on the books are laws prohibiting drivers 18 and under from using wireless phones while driving—with or without hands-free devices. Illinois also prohibits all drivers from text messaging and related activities such as e-mailing and Internet use.

Cellular phones may not be used in school speed zones and construction/road maintenance zones in Illinois. In a bold move, Evanston is currently seeking to ban all cellphone use by all drivers with or without hands-free devices—the most comprehensive restriction in the country and arguably the one most in line with the current data.

Distracted driving raises liability concerns not only for the driver but for employers whose employees regularly conduct business on cellphones while driving. Employer liability for accidents caused by cellphone-wielding employees has prompted work-related policy changes. A recent Washington Post article says many Fortune 500 companies, including UPS, DePont, Chevron, CSX, Shell and Time Warner, have moved to ban all employee cellphone use while driving. Citing multimillion-dollar settlements, the Post reports that companies are loathe to go to trial once they learn that the plaintiff attorneys are armed with cellphone records. One case involved a settlement of at least $16 million after an elderly person was struck by a distracted driver. With all of this evidence mounted against cellphone use while driving, making a case against a distracted driver just got easier.

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If you have been injured in a personal injury or medical malpractice accident, do not hesitate to contact the Chicago accident and injury law firm of Cogan & Power at (312) 477-2500 to schedule a free case consultation, so that we can help you begin the process of recovery as soon as possible. If you cannot come to our offices in downtown Chicago, we will come to you. And because we take cases on a contingency basis, you will not pay any fee unless we get you compensation.