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The majority of states now have laws prohibiting texting while driving. It took time and considerable effort to pass these laws, despite plenty of evidence showing the dangers of distracted driving. Only about 14 states, including New Jersey, have also banned the use of handheld cellphones while driving. Cellphone use behind the wheel (save for texting) remains legal in Pennsylvania.
These distracted driving laws are important for the same reason that drunk driving laws are important. Distracted driving leads to serious injuries and deaths every day across the United States. Making the behavior illegal allows police to issue citations for texting and to prosecute distracted drivers who injure or kill others. Unfortunately, convictions in these cases are often difficult to secure.
A news story recently filed by the Associated Press talks about the difficulty of proving that drivers were texting in the lead-up to an injurious or fatal crash in Pennsylvania. Prosecutors must first secure the defendant’s phone records, which can take months. Then, they must be able to prove that the defendant read or sent a text message in the seconds before the crash. Because of the high burden of proof, many of these cases are resolved through plea deals.
This problem is noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, it suggests that a law banning only texting is not enough. Any activity involving a cellphone is likely going to be distracting. When a driver injures or kills someone, why should it matter whether he was texting, using GPS or snapping a driving selfie?
The second reason is that victims who have been injured by a distracted driver often have an easier time pursuing justice in civil court than in a criminal one. In criminal cases, the standard of proof is higher. In order to secure a conviction, prosecutors must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit, however, plaintiffs only need to show that the defendant was liable based on “the preponderance of evidence.” In other words, they need to demonstrate that it is more likely than unlikely that the defendant was guilty of actions alleged by the plaintiff.
In a perfect world, distracted drivers who injure or kill others would always face both criminal and civil consequences (and in some cases, they do). But even if a criminal conviction is not possible, victims and their families can often hold negligent drivers accountable through a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit.