Local officials in the Lake Norman area and around the country are trying to educate drivers about the risks of distracted driving, especially texting or talking while driving. Glancing at your mobile phone for just a few seconds at 55 miles per hour is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field while blindfolded, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Distraction.gov website. In a recent survey of Davidson residents, pedestrians and cyclists identified distracted driving as the biggest safety risk they face.
Distracted driving has become a such a significant public safety concern that 39 states have now outlawed texting while driving. Ten states and the District of Columbia have also banned the handheld use of mobile phones for calls while driving.
THE LAW IN NORTH CAROLINA
North Carolina’s strictest distracted driving laws are aimed at protecting children and teens. Drivers under age 18 are not allowed to use mobile phones while driving except in emergencies or to contact their parents. School bus drivers are not allowed to use mobile phones for any non-emergency reason while driving.
The laws pertaining to adult drivers are more lenient and do not completely ban the use of mobile phones. For adults, using a mobile phone to read or send text messages or emails while driving is all that is prohibited.
Drivers who send texts while sitting at a stoplight are in the clear, because the law does not ban texting or emailing in a vehicle that is “lawfully parked or stopped.” Just be sure and hit send before the light turns green. Using a mobile phone to make or receive calls while driving is allowed. The law also permits reading caller ID information or using stored names and numbers to make phone calls while driving. The use of voice-activated technology and GPS devices are also legal. Other exceptions to the law allow police officers, firefighters and ambulance drivers to use mobile phones in the performance of their official duties.
The penalties for violating the law depend on the type of driver. Bus drivers who violate the law are guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor and subject to a fine of at least $100. Drivers who break the law are charged with a motor-vehicle “infraction” and have to pay a fine. The fine for drivers under 18 is $25 and for all other drivers it is $100. But the law specifically prohibits assessing driver’s license points and insurance surcharges for violations of the distracted driving laws – the costly and cumulative aspects of most other moving violations – which renders these new statutes relatively toothless.
Can I be sued if I get into an accident while texting in my car?
Yes. General negligence principles apply to any car accident. If you drive in a dangerous or unreasonable manner, you will be subject to liability for damages you cause. A violation of North Carolina’s distracted driving law may be used as evidence of negligence. However, because the statute specifically states that failure to comply “shall not constitute negligence per se,” such a violation does not automatically mean you will be liable.
A recent New Jersey lawsuit tested the limits of liability for texting. In that case, a person who was injured in a car wreck sued the person who sent a text to the driver of the car who caused the accident. The court decided that holding non-drivers liable for sending texts to drivers was an unwarranted extension of the law. Nevertheless, it is not a good idea to send a text to someone who you know is driving. If possible, wait for them to get where they are going before sending your message.
If you have a legal question of general interest, please send us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we might use your question in an upcoming column. See their previous columns under the Common Laws category.
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David and Lyn Batty live in Davidson and as lawyers, they also want you to read this disclaimer: We write this Common Laws column for informational purposes only. This column is not legal advice and it should not be relied on for making any decisions that may affect your rights. If you need legal advice regarding a specific situation you should consult a lawyer. No attorney-client relationship is created with any of our readers. Although we try to ensure that the information we provide is accurate, we disclaim any liability for inaccurate, incomplete or out-of-date information appearing in this column.