What to do if you’re injured in a distracted driving accident in the District of Columbia
Washington, D.C. is a vibrant, busy city. Whether you’re a resident of the capital city or one of the surrounding communities, a tourist, or someone who occasionally visits for work or leisure, there’s always something happening.
Tourists are in every city, but Washington, D.C. has more visitors than most. Our nation’s capital saw 24.6 million visitors in 2019. More visitors means there are more people who might be navigating around town for the first time, be on foot in places where you might not expect someone to be walking, or are simply looking around at the sights rather than at the traffic.
However, distracted driving is not just a D.C. problem, nor is it only a teenager problem (as some people believe). It’s an “everyone problem.”
Types of distracted driving
There are 3 types of distracted driving:
- Visual distractions - taking your eyes off the road
- Manual distractions - taking your hands off the wheel
- Cognitive distractions - taking your mind off the task of driving
What are some examples of distractions?
Distracted driving commonly involves the following behaviors and activities when behind the wheel:
- Eating or drinking
- Listening to loud music
- Peeking at your child in the back seat (or handing out snacks or toys)
- Personal grooming, like hairbrushing or applying makeup or shaving
- Passenger behavior
- Mobile phone or use of another electronic device
- Managing the vehicle’s dashboard controls, like temperature or sound
- External distractions, like an accident or something that happens outside your vehicle
Is distracted driving as dangerous as drunk driving?
The irony is that almost every licensed driver will tell you that they would never drive drunk because they understand the risks and the consequences. And you might be one of those people, too.
But have you ever taken a peek at a text while driving? Or leaned over to pull it out of your bag and take a look to see who’s calling?
Many of us have.
And yet, distracted driving is as dangerous (maybe more so) as drunk driving.
Here’s how we know:
To perform the test, the car was fitted with a light mounted on the windshield that would simulate a car’s brake lights. The drivers were instructed to hit the brakes when the light went on. The test took place on an open runway with no obstacles, and the drivers were using typical phones.
The data show that drivers’ reaction times were significantly slowed when texting (reading or writing) as compared to their baselines. What’s perhaps more surprising is that reaction times while texting was also higher compared to their reaction times when impaired by alcohol.
Although sometimes the differences between reaction times while drunk or distracted are minuscule (tenths or hundredths of a second), it’s significant because those hundredths of a second directly translate into the number of feet driven. For the additional 0.68 seconds of reaction time it took for one driver to see the brake light when distracted by his phone, his vehicle traveled 319 feet — which is practically the length of a football field.
The Distracted Driving Safety Act of 2004
Although phones and electronics aren’t the only ways to be distracted while driving, they are the most common.
With the Distracted Driving Safety Act of 2004, the District made it illegal to use a phone or other electronic device while driving, unless you’re also using a hands-free accessory. The exception is if you need to call 911 or 311 in an emergency. Law enforcement or emergency personnel may use a mobile phone while driving if it’s within their official duties.
You may initiate or terminate a phone call or turn the phone on or off without the use of a hands-free accessory.
School bus drivers and drivers with a learner’s permit may not use any mobile phone or electronic device, even with a hands-free accessory, unless they are placing an emergency call.
The penalty for violating this law is a $100 fine, but a first-time violator can avoid the fine by purchasing a hands-free accessory. Fines become higher for subsequent offenses. If a texting or mobile phone violation leads to an accident with substantial bodily harm or death, or property damage of $10,000 or more, additional penalties could be up to $1,000 in fines and up to 180 days in jail.
How to recover damages after a distracted driving accident
Liability for a distracted driving accident would be the same as any other type of D.C. car accident.
Washington, D.C. is a no-fault jurisdiction. That means an insurance company pays for its own insured’s damages, regardless of who was at fault for the accident. Even if the other driver was texting or otherwise distracted at the time of the crash, you would first make a claim for your injuries to your own insurance policy.
If your injuries are fairly minor, this would probably be the end of the story.
But if you’ve been severely injured or the accident costs you a lot of money, it could exceed the amount of your insurance policy. If that happens, you’d turn to the at-fault driver’s insurance company. If you reach the limit for what their policy covers, the last resort is to file a personal injury lawsuit against the distracted driver for your remaining damages.
Types of damages from a distracted driving accident
“Damages” are the financial costs you can recover after a personal injury, including a car accident. If you’re the victim, you’re entitled to recover expenses so that the accident hasn’t caused you to lose money.
Damages can include:
- Medical treatment. A personal injury award almost always includes the cost of medical care, both to repay what you’ve already spent on care and to pay for estimated future treatment. Your lawyer will work with experts like doctors, accountants and actuaries to determine what your future medical needs will entail and what they’re likely to cost. Medical treatment costs can include doctor and hospital visits, prescription medication, assistive devices, rehabilitative therapies, and any other costs related to your physical recovery.
- Lost income. You can also claim salary and wages lost due to an accident. This might include the time you had to take off from work following your injury, a reduction in wages if you had to return to a different job than the one you had before the accident, and loss of earning capacity. Loss of earning capacity is the difference between what you would’ve earned for the remainder of your lifetime and what you will actually earn because of the accident.
- Property loss. If you’re filing a lawsuit because of a car accident, the cost of replacing or repairing your car would be included under property loss. You’re entitled to the fair market value of any property lost.
- Emotional distress. Emotional distress damages compensate a plaintiff for the non-physical effects of an injury. This might include fear, anxiety, sleep disturbances, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other psychological conditions that arise following trauma or serious injury.
- Loss of enjoyment. Life is about more than the necessities. You might be able to eat, sleep, and function, but can you enjoy your time? Anyone who has been injured to the extent that they lose some level of capacity to do the things they previously enjoyed could be eligible for a damage award for loss of enjoyment.
- Loss of consortium. If a loved one was in an accident and lost the ability to provide love, affection, companionship, comfort, or even the ability to participate in household responsibilities and child-rearing, you might have a loss of consortium claim.
- Punitive damages. Punitive damages are occasionally added to a plaintiff’s award as a way to punish the defendant for behavior that was especially egregious or malicious. However, punitive damages in personal injury cases are rare.
Washington, D.C. is a pure contributory negligence jurisdiction
The District of Columbia follows a pure contributory negligence standard, which means if the plaintiff shares any degree of fault, they can’t recover damages for an accident.
Negligence per se is when evidence is introduced that the defendant violated a law such as one that prohibits mobile phone use while driving. In other words, an injured plaintiff would only need to prove that the defendant was, in fact, using their mobile phone while driving in order for the driver to be considered negligent. That’s because car accidents are specifically the type of harm the cell phone laws were designed to protect against.
However, because of the pure contributory negligence standard, even if the driver who caused the accident was texting or otherwise distracted, you can’t collect any damages if you had any liability for the collision.
Legal options after an accident with a distracted driver
There are 2 ways you can recover damages after an accident with a distracted driver in the District:
- File a claim through no-fault insurance. This would seek benefits from your own insurance company for medical treatment, lost wages and property damage, or the other driver’s insurance if the amount exceeds your own insurance policy maximum.
- File a personal injury lawsuit. If insurance cannot or will not compensate you for the full cost of your damages, you can file a lawsuit to recover expenses.
Again, this is only possible if the other driver is 100% liable for your injuries.
10 tips for avoiding distracted driving
You can’t control other drivers on the road. But you can make sure that you are doing your part to avoid distracted driving. Follow these tips and advice to stay safe and focused while behind the wheel:
- Never hold your phone in your hand. If you need to use it for GPS, mount it to the dashboard so you can see the map without taking your eyes off the road. Turn off other notifications so you’re not seeing other banners or pop-up notifications on the map while driving.
- Silence your phone before getting in the car.
- It’s not just about texting — don’t use any apps or social media while driving. If you need to send a text or look at something, pull over where it’s safe to do so.
- Don’t text or call someone if you know they’re likely to be driving.
- If you can’t resist looking at your phone when it buzzes, keep it somewhere you can’t get it (like in the back seat or trunk) so that you’re not tempted to sneak a peek.
- Don’t eat or drink while driving.
- If you listen to music or podcasts from your phone while driving, queue your selections beforehand so you don’t have to touch your phone while behind the wheel.
- Don’t allow your passengers to be a distraction.
- If you drop something on the floor of the car, either leave it there until you’ve reached your destination or pull over to retrieve it.
- Regardless of what’s happening outside the car, don’t use your phone to take videos while driving. If you feel like recording traffic is useful, purchase a dashcam that can record automatically.
Carriers like Sprint and AT&T also have native apps that are free and will lock your phone’s notifications when you drive. You can also use the iPhone’s Do Not Disturb While Driving feature or Android’s Safe Driving Mode.
What to do after a distracted driving accident
If you suspect that the driver who caused your accident was distracted, then it’s especially important to contact a lawyer immediately. Your attorney can gain access to phone records that might be able to prove that they were doing something illegal at the time of the crash. Some records from the phone provider can determine whether the phone was in use, and what function was being performed at the time of the crash — but if you wait too long to investigate, you might not be able to gather the evidence you need for proof.
Likewise, if you have contact information for witnesses at the scene, it’s best to let your lawyer contact them. As your legal representative, your attorney might ask questions that you wouldn’t think to ask, and might seek clues that you’re not aware of. A witness might have seen the other driver engaging in a distraction (like eating or drinking) that would be nearly impossible to prove without eyewitness testimony.