What a Criminal Lawyer Tells His Children About…Driving With a Handheld Device.

I thought I would start a series of blog posts to provide lessons I’ve learned in over 20 years’ criminal law practice, to help you and your family. Being a criminal defense attorney gives me an up close and personal view of all the actions one can and will get in trouble for. I have always discussed and given my kids advice based on the situations I see. Situations such as underage drinking, having a fake ID, and their right to remain silent when being questioned by the police (as you can see I am lots of fun at home).

I want to focus on issues like these because I represent many students and families who say to me “if we had only known.” Well I want to give people information so they know. And then their kids can know. And hopefully bad situations can be prevented.

So, I’m calling this series  “What a Criminal Lawyer Tells His Children about…,” and my first topic is: “What a Criminal Lawyer Tells His Children about… Phone Use While Driving.”

Probably everyone knows about the serious problem of drink- or drug-impaired driving. Such chemical impairments diminish drivers’ perception, judgment and reaction time. In 2015, according to statistics from the federal Department of Transportation, 10,265 people — almost a third of U.S. driving fatalities – died in alcohol-impaired accidents. Impairment from drugs other than alcohol played a part in about one-sixth of all motor vehicle accidents. Surprisingly, texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than drunken driving is.

You and I can no doubt remember when there were no such things as cellphones, much less smartphones. And now they’re everywhere – including inside vehicles moving through the streets of your town or over the highways. And it’s not just for programs giving GPS route guidance – there’s everything out there from drivers making quick calls home to those sending and receiving emails or texting, or using all sorts of apps.

It’s been estimated that at any given year, about 660,000 accidents occur while U.S. drivers are using their phones, and one or more injuries result in about half of those accidents.

The Dangers of Distracted Driving

In recent years, the significant part distraction plays in road accidents has become clearer. The National Safety Council says distracted or exhausted drivers have 1.6 million accidents every year, nearly a quarter of all vehicle accidents in America. A Federal Highway Administration study found those who texted while driving were 23 times more likely to crash, while talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving made a crash four times more likely.

The reason is simple: there is danger anytime a driver’s attention is diverted from the safe operation of his or her vehicle, the road, or the behavior of other drivers or pedestrians. If a driver traveling at 55 miles per hour spends five seconds looking at a text, during that brief instant, the vehicle will travel over the length of a football field with the driver’s eyes off the road.

Since they’re the least experienced, young drivers are at special risk from distracted driving. Texting alone kills 11 teens every day. Despite substantial efforts to bring these dangers to the attention of drivers, especially younger drivers, through education and public service announcements (for examples, see the Texting and Driver Safety website), 35% of young drivers admitted in an AAA survey that, although they understood the danger of texting while driving, they still did it anyway.

The threat to life and well-being is by far the biggest danger of distracted driving, but there can be other serious consequences. If you’re ticketed for improper cell phone use or texting, you can expect, at a minimum: five points on your license, a $150 fine, and higher auto insurance premiums. But distracted driving also poses serious dangers not only to yourself, but also to pedestrians, other drivers, and passengers in your own and other vehicles.

No one expects to be involved in a serious accident. But the reality is: all it takes is a split second for it to happen. And if there’s any evidence, either from witnesses or the records of the driver’s phone use right before such an accident, that driver’s life will changed for the worse in an instant. If you’re driving but preoccupied with dialing, talking, facebooking or whatever, your inattention could result in a serious mishap that might open you to serious legal consequences, from civil lawsuits to criminal charges, such vehicular assault, which is a felony.

Increased concern about distracted driving also makes prosecutors and courts more reluctant to accept plea bargains for guilty pleas to lesser charges, and when they do, you’ll be required to install a monitor tracking all calls from your phone while your vehicle is moving, and making that record available for court review, so failure to comply will lead to the stricter charge being reinstated.

What Should You Now Tell Your Kids

  • If they don’t already know, make sure your family understands how threatening distracted driving is. And be sure to set clear guidelines, including not to ride with a driver who uses distracting devices.
  • Educate them on the impact of the laws against using distracting electronic devices while driving (All but a few states have them). New York, Connecticut and New Jersey all ban any use of handheld devices while driving, and in CT and NJ drivers under age 18 cannot legally use any device, even if not handheld, while driving. Violations can bring fines, license points, higher insurance premiums, and even jailtime.
  • Remind them pedestrians also need to use caution, and can get in trouble if they’re too distracted by their cellphone, rather than watching where they’re going (an area in which some jurisdictions are beginning to legislate).
  • Give them a few useful tips to reduce or eliminate the likelihood they’ll be tempted by their devices. They could turn them off, shut off notifications, or put them out of sight and reach. Or they could give the device to a passenger, if someone’s thumbs need to be on your phone. Or consider a variety of apps that can prevent them from driving and texting.
  • Finally, always set a good example for them. And tell your kids, it’s not the ticket, the fine or the points. It’s staying safe, and avoiding something that could drastically change their life.
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