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January 3 2017

Christmas Eve Distracted Driving Fatality Could Trigger Government Action

Patrice L. Onwuka

The warning “Don’t drink and drive” is increasingly being replaced with “Don’t text and drive.” That will soon become outdated as FaceTiming, Facebook Lives, and Periscoping, while driving grows more popular. Whatever the forms of distracted driving, the message is clear: act responsibly, otherwise the consequences could be deadly.

Just ask the family of Moriah Modisette. Modisette was a five-year-old, who lost her life on Christmas Eve two years ago on a Texas interstate when the driver of the SUV behind her family’s Toyota Camry failed to notice them stop. As the Washington Post recounts, the driver behind them “never saw their brake lights, police believe. Driving behind the Camry, he was using Apple’s FaceTime video chat application on his iPhone 6 Plus, and slammed into the Camry at full highway speed.”

This heart-breaking story doesn’t end there though. It may be the start of a public legal fight and the fodder for Washington transportation regulators to strengthen regulations in smartphone technology.

The Modisette Family filed a lawsuit against tech giant Apple the day after Christmas of 2016, claiming that the company was responsible for the loss of Moriah and the injuries (physical and emotional) to her parents and sister. They argue that Apple failed to install and implement a “lock out” feature in the FaceTime application that prevents an iPhone from operating while someone is driving a motor vehicle. They are seeking damages from the deep-pocketed Apple.

According to the lawsuit, the family says that iPhones have the ability to tell whether the phone is in motion and how fast it’s going using built-in GPS and functionality that measures acceleration. “Yet Defendant Apple, Inc., failed to configure the iPhone 6 Plus to ‘lock-out’ the ability for a driver to utilize (Apple’s) ‘FaceTime’ application, while driving at highway speeds.”

While this family is certainly in pain at the loss of their daughter, injuries to her dad and the emotional losses to the family, we have to wonder if the right plaintiff wasn’t the distracted driver who actually caused the accident.  However, Apple has far deeper pockets and might very well be willing to pay a hefty settlement to prevent the case form going to trial.

This case does raise interesting questions and no doubt the antenna of regulators looking to strengthen their control over tech product development. Does Apple have a responsibility to ensure that its products won’t be used to distract drivers? Should Apple be held culpable for all distracted drivers using their products? What about biking or running while on FaceTime? In both instances, the person holding the device is moving and can cause an accident. At what speed threshold does the lock-out feature kick in? Smartphone makers aren’t the only ones on the hook, video game and application makers could also be held liable for distracted driving. Is Nintendo responsible for the motorist playing Pokemon Go on his smartphone who crashed into a patrol car during last year?

Shut-off features while driving are common technology and make good safety features. However, how far should companies go to ensure that smartphones, applications, and technology don’t lead to even more distracted behavior? Furthermore, how can technology developers envision the ways that people will use their products both for good and for harm –even if the harm is unintentional?

Personal responsibility should play a huge role. As users we have a responsibility to act with care and be mindful of not only ourselves but others around us, especially on the roads. Blaming the company that created Facetime for a driver who thought he could hold a video call while moving over 60 miles per hour is misplaced and lacks common sense about personal responsibility.

This is just the kind of example that could be held up as data point for why distracted behavior needs greater regulation. Washington has used some pressure to get smartphone manufacturers to introduce safe driving features. Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released guidelines for driver-mode functionality that they encourage app and tech device developers to include in their products. Whether a case like this will prompt a stronger federal response is questionable, but there’s no doubt that Washington is watching.

 

 

 

 

 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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