Alabama Law Bans Texting While Driving

As of August 1, 2012, Alabama became the 38th state to have banned at least one general form of electronic communication by anyone who is operating a motor vehicle. The new “Driving While Distracted” law is intended to address the potentially-dangerous practice of sending and receiving text messages, instant messages (IMs), and e-mails via devices such as smart phones and other, similar, hand-held devices while the sender/receiver is driving.
According to Alabama Public Safety Department of Public Safety director, Col. Hugh McCall, distraction from an electronic communication device caused 1,256 accidents, including five fatalities, in 2010. McCall had previously stated his support for the new law when it was debated in the Legislature earlier this year, commenting that texting while driving causes an impairment in a driver’s reaction time that is similar to that seen in cases of impairment driving while intoxicated: “Texting while driving is distracted driving, and distracted driving is impaired driving …”

From an enforcement perspective, the new law is defined by statute to be a “primary” law; meaning that it is a chargeable offense in its own right and, further, that a police officer may make a traffic stop if he or she has sufficient cause to suspect that a driver may be distracted. The penalties for violation of the distracted driver statute begin with a fine of $25, which can rise to $75 after a third or subsequent conviction. Each conviction for a violation of the distracted driver law will also result in 2 points being added to the driver’s motor vehicle record maintained by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The law does not, however, prohibit the use of “hands-free” telephones, radio, or Global Positioning Systems (GPS) receivers nor does it apply when such technology is used in an emergency situation or when used to promote highway safety.
As had been the case in many other states, the Alabama law was introduced years earlier but had met with opposition from groups as diverse as civil libertarians, professional truck drivers, and those opposing the “encroachment” of “big government” into an area that had previously been felt to represent an individual’s decision.
An immediate effect of the new law will be that, in making it unlawful to drive while distracted, a personal injury lawyer will now be able to argue that the mere fact that texting occurred immediately prior to an accident is sufficient to establish the liability of a distracted driver for any damages incurred in an accident. This is essentially the same legal reasoning used to establish legal liability in accidents in which alcohol was a factor. Restated, since texting while driving is now illegal in the same way that driving while intoxicated is illegal, criminal conviction for texting while driving is considered to be evidence that a defendant in a personal injury lawsuit meets the prime criterion of liability in that the defendant acted with willful disregard toward the safety of other drivers by committing an illegal act.
To recap, Alabama’s new “driving while distracted” law makes it illegal for the driver of a motor vehicle to send or receive electronic messages while his or her vehicle is in motion. Although it is far too early to predict the impact of this law on motor vehicle accidents, or the number of accidental injuries, this new law will certainly help to definitely establish legal liability in those cases that may, at least partially, be attributed to sending and receiving text messages by the party at fault.
This article was contributed by Jenny Kim, client manager for Price Benowitz LLP in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.