Three appeals court judges in New Jersey ruled that sending a text message to a driver is a liability, and the sender can be held responsible in the case of an accident.
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Last year, we asked the question, "If you send a text to a driver, can you go to jail if he crashes?"
Most folks responded, "No" -- sometimes, "No #*$&% way!" But judges in New Jersey apparently have a different opinion.
In 2009, Kyle Best was exchanging text messages with Shannon Colonna. Best was driving at the time.
Distracted by Colonna's texts, Best drifted out of his travel lane and collided with a motorcycle being ridden by David and Linda Kubert. Each of the Kuberts lost a leg in the accident, and they sued Best, who settled out of court.
But the case didn't stop there. Litigation being what it is, the Kuberts also sued Colonna, arguing that she was just as guilty as Best because she distracted him from the task of driving.
Judge David Rand found that Colonna was not liable for the accident, insisting that drivers alone are responsible for their actions. But according to CNN, the Kuberts appealed Rand's decision and won -- well, almost.
Three appeals court judges found merit in the Kuberts' argument: "We hold that the sender of a text message can potentially be liable if an accident is caused by texting, but only if the sender knew or had special reason to know that the recipient would view the text while driving and thus be distracted."
That last bit is important: though Colonna could've been held liable for Best's accident, the judges determined that she was unaware that Best was driving at the time. That decision was informed, in part, by Colonna's age at the time of the incident (she was 17) and by the fact that she regularly sent over 100 text messages per day, apparently clueless about what recipients might be doing at the time.
The appeals court decision has already been widely criticized, with everyone from Governor Chris Christie to the Man on the Street arguing that drivers are ultimately responsible for whether they read and respond to text messages.
We agree. There are plenty of distractions in the auto space, but drivers are tasked with ignoring them and keeping their eyes on the road. For example, chatting with a driver can be distracting: can someone be arrested for having a discussion with a driver if that driver hits another car? Food and beverages can be distracting, too: should fast food restaurants be sued for accidents if the coffee and burgers they serve cause a distracted-driving accident? The list of possibilities seems endless.
Call us old-fashioned, but we think drivers study and practice in order to minimize their susceptibility to distractions. Blaming accidents on the source of those distractions rather than the person behind the wheel absolves the driver of her/his responsibility in all but the most extreme cases.
Does that line up with your own opinions on the matter? Sound off in the comments below.
Bonus: If you haven't seen acclaimed director Werner Herzog's documentary about texting and driving called "From One Second to the Next", it's well, well worth your time. We've embedded it above.