The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in 2011, 3,331 people were killed and 387,000 were injured in motor vehicle accidents involving a distracted driver. The NHTSA further reports that for drivers under the age of 20 who were involved in fatal accidents, 11% were reported to be distracted at the time of the crash, and for 15-19 year olds who were distracted when involved in fatal crashes, 21% were distracted by using cell phones. The National Safety Council estimates that there were more than 500,000 crashes involving drivers using cell phones and texting in the first half of 2013 and that these distracted drivers cause an additional wreck every 30 seconds.
Kentucky enacted laws that went into effect in 2010 that prohibits drivers from “texting while driving,” i.e., text messaging while a vehicle is in motion. KRS 189.292. In addition, any person under the age of 18, whether using an instruction permit, intermediate license or operator’s license, is prohibited from both texting and cell phone use while driving. KRS 189.294. Text messaging is more dangerous than talking on a cellphone since it requires the driver’s visual, manual and cognitive attention, the three main types of distraction.
In spite of the laws prohibiting texting while driving in Kentucky, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported in May, 2013 that less than 1,000 citations had been issued state-wide during the more than two years since the new laws went into effect since police say it’s difficult to determine if someone is violating the law while driving down the road. Lexington police stated that in 2012 cell phones were a contributing factor in 26 accidents, but the number for 2013 had already climbed to 38 by May. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported in January, 2013 that although accidents caused by distracted driving dropped statewide in 2012, such accidents rose to the highest level in Jefferson County in a decade.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that when a driver crashed his truck into a van carrying 10 members of a Kentucky Mennonite community in March 2012, causing one of Kentucky’s deadliest highway accidents, the driver might have been on his cellphone.
Under Kentucky law, a driver who causes a car wreck or other accident while using a cellphone could be considered grossly negligent, and such a finding could cause a judgment to be entered against the driver for punitive damages in addition to all other damages caused by the driver. Although an insurer cannot exclude punitive damages from the minimum tort liability limits required by Kentucky law, the minimum limits in Kentucky are only $25,000, so insurance will provide little protection against punitive damages. If insurance does not provide coverage for punitive damages, the driver’s personal assets can be attached to pay the punitive damages.
In addition to the possibility of having to pay punitive damages if a crash happens while using a cellphone, a driver can also face criminal charges. In September, 2012, a man in Vernal, Utah was charged with automobile homicide, a second degree felony, after striking and killing a pedestrian while texting on his cellphone. A woman in Kern County, California was charged in April, 2012 with vehicle manslaughter with gross negligence after she ignored a stop sign while speeding and talking on her phone. She crashed into a motorcycle and caused the driver to suffer fatal trauma.
In April, 2013 a Las Vegas woman was charged with a felony after causing a fatal accident and killing two people when she ran a red light and crashed into another car while speeding and talking on her cell phone. And, a 16-year old girl was charged with manslaughter, assault and texting while driving in Kansas City, Missouri after she caused a fatal accident while texting on her cellphone. Her inattention caused her to run off the road and when she brought her vehicle back onto the roadway, she struck another car head-on.