On the morning of April 27, 2011, Deanna M. sat parked in her Hyundai during a typical freeway traffic jam on California’s Interstate 405. On that same morning, Jorene Ypanto Nicolas was several miles behind Deanna also on Interstate 405. She was in a “big hurry” to meet her boyfriend for lunch so she frantically texted him while she careened her Prius at 80 miles per hour down the Interstate freeway. With her face buried in her phone, Jorene never even saw the traffic ahead, let alone had the opportunity to slow down, before smashing into the back of Deanna’s Hyundai at 80 miles per hour. Deanna died as a result of the collision. The California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, later commented during the appeal of Jorene’s conviction for gross vehicular manslaughter that because Jorene “was using her cell phone and texting for 17 minutes leading up to the collision,” “she was oblivious to what was right in front of her.” In other words, she was distracted driving.
According to data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving is six times more dangerous than drunk driving. Cell phone use while driving has surpassed drunk driving, drugged driving, and drowsy driving as the number one cause of personal injuries and death in the United States. Approximately half a million people are injured annually in distracted driving crashes. So why do we allow distracted drivers to pay twenty dollars and drive away but, as per my Uber driver the other day, “you drive drunk, and it’s like you shot someone.”
Although States have made significant strides over the last few years in their adoption of distracted driving laws, the penalties imposed for violations of these laws is too insignificant to create a real deterrent to distracted driving. There are only three states that include a jail sentence as a penalty for distracted driving: Alaska imposes a penalty of up to one year in prison; Arkansas imposes a penalty of up to 10 days in prison; and Utah imposes a penalty of up to 90 days in prison. Again except for Alaska, which also permits the imposition of a $10,000 fine for distracted driving violations, and Utah, which permits the imposition of a $750 fine, most States limit distracted driving penalties to a fine in the amount of $200 or less, with some states imposing relatively higher fines within the $200 to $500 range. In contrast, a first time drunk driving offense can cost a driver $20,000 in fines, at least the minimum jail time in 42 states, revocation of their driver’s license, criminal charges, and disclosure on all future applications related to employment, education, and housing.
Although California is ranked as the fifteenth strictest state in terms of the scope of its distracted driving laws, California is also ranked as the 42nd strictest state in terms of the penalties imposed for violations. The only penalty for violating a distracted driving law in California is a 20 dollar fine.
Further, police have struggled to effectively enforce distracted driving laws, especially in States where cellphone use while driving is permissible for activities other than texting. For example, the Seventh Circuit held that an officer lacked reasonable suspicion that the defendant, who had been holding his phone, touching the screen of his phone, and bending towards his phone, was violating Indiana’s no-texting while driving law because Indiana only prohibited texting, not cell phone use generally. Therefore, the Court concluded that the defendant could have been lawfully using his cellphone for the purpose of “making and receiving phone calls, inputting addresses, reading driving directions and maps with GPS applications, reading news and weather programs, retrieving and playing music or audio books, surfing the Internet, playing video games—even watching movies or television.”
California is at the forefront in the fight against distracted driving. The State was one of the first to adopt an aggressive distracted driving law that bans cell phone use under any circumstances while driving, and it has served as the launch pad for safety-aimed tech apps like Text to Ticket. However, given the insignificant penalties and difficulties with enforcement, it is crucial for those who have been injured at the hands of a distracted driver to help call attention to this increasingly problematic issue.