Distracted Driving: The New Battle to Keep Drivers Safe

We have all seen the familiar “It Can Wait” commercials interspersed with the more traditional drinking and driving campaigns lately. The ads are in response to a sharp rise in road fatalities in recent years. Road fatalities had been steadily falling for years and the new trend upwards is alarming, up 8 percent in 2015 over the previous year. The chief of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) says the increase is partly because there are simply more people on the road and they are driving more frequently, but it is also due to an increase in distracted driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is not just airing catchy new ads as part of their plan to combat distracted driving. The NHTSA is developing tools to help fight distracted driving at and are using old formats to tackle the problem. For example, Harvard’s School of Public Health is developing an initiative based on the designated driver campaign it created in the 1980’s while the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving helped found Partnership for Distraction-Free Driving this year.

texting while driving distracted in Columbus, OhioHowever, some lawmakers in New York are hoping to provide law enforcement with tools for combating distracted driving at the street level. Lawmakers want to equip police officers with a device similar to the Breathalyzer to use during traffic stops where suspected distracted driving is involved. The new device taps into the operating system of a phone to check for recent activity.  The technology would determine whether a driver had used the phone to text or email or to anything else that is prohibited by hands-free laws. If a driver refuses to hand the phone over to law enforcement, they could have their licenses suspended just like those who decline a Breathalyzer test when arrested for drinking and driving.

The proposed legislation is not without its critics. Privacy advocates worry that the Textalyzer device allows police to seize phones without justification or a warrant. The Supreme Court seems to agree with privacy advocates on the need for a warrant before a cellphone may be searched. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Riley v. California  that police could not search a cellphone even after an arrest without first obtaining a warrant. The petitioner in that case was arrested on weapons charges after a traffic stop and detectives later searched the content of his phone without obtaining a warrant. However, lawmakers say they are basing their Textalyzer law on the same implied consent concept that allows police to use Breathalyzers without first obtaining a warrant. The implied consent at issue is that driver’s consent to a Breathalyzer test when they obtain their license with the knowledge that refusing such a test will result in a suspension of their license.

Advocates of this and similar laws say it is crucial that law enforcement have some tool to use in the field, because distracted driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving but is still socially acceptable. They argue harsher laws and stiffer penalties combined with street level tools will drive home the message that distracted driving is a dangerous crime with serious consequences.


If you need a lawyer for a criminal or Federal case, call Attorney W. Joseph Edwards (614-309-0243) who has over 25 years experience representing clients in these legal matters.



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