Last week, a New Jersey court ruled that individuals who send text messages to people they know are driving can be held legally responsible in case of a subsequent car accident.
It’s the latest blow in a national battle against texting and driving, a dangerous habit that has proven fatal for thousands of Americans. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, texting while driving makes drivers 23 times more likely to crash and is the equivalent of driving after drinking four beers. According to this infographic from Texting and Driving Safety, texting drivers caused 1.3 million car accidents in 2011. The practice generally causes 11 teen deaths per year.
While legal measures against texting and driving have focused mainly on punishing the driver, the New Jersey ruling targets the person on the other end of the line.
“If the sender knows that the recipient is both driving and will read the text immediately, then the sender has taken a foreseeable risk in sending a text at that time,” the ruling reads. “The sender has knowingly engaged in distracting conduct, and it is not unfair also to hold the sender responsible for the distraction.”
The ruling is a response to a 2008 car accident in which teen driver Kyle Best swerved out of his lane into oncoming traffic while reading a text message, according to The Atlantic. Best collided with a motorcycle carrying Linda and David Kupert, who each lost a leg. They sued Best and Shannon Colonna, the friend who texted him seconds before the wreck, arguing she was electronically present and fatally distracting.
The court ultimately ruled in Colonna’s favor because it found no evidence to prove she knew Best was driving. But the judges agreed with the merits of the Kuperts’ argument: “We conclude that a person sending text messages has a duty not to text someone who is driving if the texter knows, or has special reason to know, the recipient will view the text while driving.”
Currently, texting while driving is illegal in 41 states. But non-legal movements to deter the dangerous habit have also gained traction. In 2009, AT&T launched the “It Can Wait” campaign, in which family and friends tell the stories of people either gravely injured or killed by a texting driver. On the website, drivers can sign a pledge not to text and drive.
These stories have mostly run as 30-second commercial spots on television, but last month, AT&T released a 35-minute film created in collaboration with noted filmmaker Werner Herzog. From One Second to the Next tells the stories of drivers and the families their texting affected. AT&T currently hosts the video on YouTube and on its campaign website. The company plans to show the film to students in 40,000 high schools nationwide.