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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Distracted Driving Causing Death

As statistics, injuries and deaths mount, distracted driving is evolving from minor ordinance violation to misdemeanor and, in some cases, felony status. Hand-held devices and on-board computing, while very useful and powerful these days, distract drivers from their primary task: staying focused on the road at all times.

Operating a cell phone has been prohibited by the Motor Vehicle Code in Michigan since October 2013. The applicable language of the Code provides:
Except as otherwise provided in this section, a person shall not read, manually type, or send a text message on a wireless 2-way communication device that is located in the person's hand or in the person's lap, including a wireless telephone used in cellular telephone service or personal communication service, while operating a motor vehicle that is moving on a highway or street in this state. As used in this subsection, a wireless 2-way communication device does not include a global positioning or navigation system that is affixed to the motor vehicle.
Statistics now reveal that as many as one in four vehicle accidents are caused by a distracted driver. There are many forms of distracted driving:
  • cell phone use of any kind; 
  • GPS input on vehicle dash or device;
  • tending to the vehicle console in any way, including changing a radio station;
  • hands-free interaction with the vehicle console;
  • eating;
  • reading documents; and
  • talking to passengers in a manner that takes your eyes from the road ahead.
Even for those not driving, but texting someone whom they know is driving a vehicle, contributes to this dangerous problem now being addressed by the law. Distracted driving is any activity that takes a driver's full-attention from the road ahead and places it somewhere else.

A case of distracted driving from St. Johns, near Lansing, caught our attention this past summer. A driver, distracted by using her cell phone, struck and killed a bicyclist.

Mitzi Nelson pled to a misdemeanor and the district judge fashioned an interesting sentence: she could not own or possess a cell phone during her two year probation; she did 90-days jail "up front"; and she was obligated to address 20 separate drivers education classes. A very light sentence for causing someone's death.

In Rock County, Minnesota, Chris Weber was driving his truck at night and decided to check his cell phone to see about paying his mortgage. While doing so, he struck and killed a mother of two on a bike; her two daughters were in a carrier attached to the bike.

Unlike Nelson's case here in Michigan, Weber was convicted of vehicular homicide, a felony in Minnesota. He did 120-days in jail; a relatively small price to pay. Now he is assisting the Minnesota State Patrol by making a video with the victim's husband.

For busy mobile folks living in a world of 24/7 connectivity, constant contact has become the standard. What better time to "catch up" or to knock-out that one email task or make that one call than while you are on the road between appointments.

We know all about it over here at the Law Blogger, as we are in 2 or 3 courts each day, driving all over Southeast Michigan on deadlines. Here are a few habits we ask our legal team to develop while on the road:
  1. When putting on your seat belt, make a conscious resolution each time that you will not answer your cell phone until you have reached your destination; 
  2. To that end, prior to pulling-out from your parking spot, check your phone for any messages, and send any messages that you need to send; 
  3. Likewise, make any calls you need to make prior to reaching your next destination; 
  4. If possible, leave enough time on both ends of your trip segment to complete the above tasks; 
  5. When a call comes in while you are on the road, ignore it because your life, and our lives, are more important.
  6. Do not text someone that you know is over the road.
It is the height of arrogance to believe that you are so busy, and that your schedule is so important, that you must tap into your phone, constantly, while on the road. Veteran drivers have been doing this, and getting away with it for years.

Statistics and circumstances, however, will eventually catch-up to such drivers. Just because a driver is busy does not mean the rest of us have to pay the price.

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