The Ohio Department of Health’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey confirms that young drivers continue to text and drive at alarming rates. The survey reflects that almost half of Ohio high school students text or email while driving. These statistics are particularly sobering given that the dangers of texting and driving have been well-advertised. We have previously reported on this blog about the risks of texting and driving, distracted driving and drunk driving, all of which unnecessarily raise the risk of serious motor vehicle accidents.
Under Ohio law, a driver will be held liable for personal injuries caused by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle, including running a red light, failing to maintain an assured clear distance, going left of center or striking a pedestrian on the berm or in a crosswalk. The injured party need not prove why a negligent driver broke traffic laws and caused the car accident. In other words, the plaintiff need not prove that the driver was distracted or inexperienced or drunk or tired or any other precipitating factor at the time of the crash.
Evidence of a texting while driving, however, can carry additional consequences. First, texting while driving may raise the potential for punitive damages. Punitive damages are damages that are meant to teach a lesson and, as such, they are not covered by insurance. Ohio courts have not yet established whether texting while driving gives rise to a punitive damages claim. However, Ohio law does permit punitive damages generally when a driver engages in reckless behavior or disregards the safety of others. I think a convincing argument can be made that intentionally diverting your eyes from the road while in motion is reckless conduct.
Second, texting while driving may carry consequences for the driver in traffic court. When a driver causes an accident, they will typically be cited at the scene by a police officer. The traffic court has some discretion in leveling fines and court costs for an offense. A judge may be more inclined to impose a harsh sentence if texting is involved. Further, in some jurisdictions, texting and driving is unlawful, so that an added fine is automatic.
We are always certain to obtain a copy of statements made to police and request cell phone records in any collision to see if cell phone use was a factor in motor vehicle accidents. I believe that most car crashes occur due to hazardous precipitating conduct by the driver. There is no such thing as an “accident.” When people engage in unsafe driving, it puts all of us at risk of injury.