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Drunk Driving or Distracted Driving?

The dangers posed by impaired drivers are widely recognized.  Drunk and drugged driving remains a significant problem and should not ignored.   Nevertheless, the lesser-known danger of distracted driving must be addressed as well.  Despite evidence that instances of injuries and death due to distracted driving have increased, public awareness and policy lag far behind awareness and policy for drunk driving.

In 2009, 5,400 people died and another 448,000 were injured because of distracted drivers.[1]  Of the 5,400 deaths, 995 were attributed to cell phone use.[2]  Alarmingly, instances of distracted driving are on the rise.  In 2005, 7 percent of fatal crashes were the result of distracted drivers.  In 2009, that percentage had increased to 11 percent.[3]

By comparison, 7,281 people died as the result of crashes involving at least one driver with a BAC of .08 or greater.[4]  Unlike distracted driving, however, the number of fatalities resulting from impaired drivers has decreased significantly over the last ten years.[5]

In response to the growing epidemic of distracted drivers, government agencies have focused on awareness instead of laws and penalties that reflect those concerning drunk and drugged driving.  For example, on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website, a visitor may find two separate pages.  One webpage lists how drunk driving may be prevented.   A second, similar webpage asserts how distracted driving may be prevented.  The difference in the CDC’s approach as outlined on their website is notable.

To prevent fatalities injuries that result from impaired (drunk or drugged) driving, the CDC recommends the following preventative measures (Subheading: “How can deaths and injuries from impaired driving be prevented?):

  1. Actively enforce of existing laws;
  2. Promptly revoke licenses from DUI offenders;
  3. Use sobriety checkpoints;
  4. Promote health efforts that influence all aspects of the community;
  5. Mandate substance abuse assessments and treatments for offenders;
  6. Reduce the illegal BAC threshold to .05%;
  7. Raise state and federal alcohol excise taxes; and
  8. Require blood alcohol testing after traffic crashes that result in injury.[6]

Accordingly, one might assume that the CDC would promote similar efforts for distracted driving.  This is not the case.  Instead the CDC lists the following with respect to preventing distracted driving (Subheading: “How can distracted driving be prevented”):

  1. “Many states are enacting laws—such as banning texting while driving—or using graduated driver licensing systems for teen drivers to help raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving and to keep it from occurring.”
  2. “On September 30, 2009, President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting federal employees from texting while driving on government business or with government equipment.”
  3. “On October 27, 2010, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration enacted a ban that prohibits commercial vehicle drivers from texting while driving.”[7]

Recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, released a “Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving.”[8]  The “comprehensive strategy” encourages the 11 states without an anti-texting statute to enact one, “challenges” the auto industry to adopt guidelines for in-car technology, and advocates for a new driver education curriculum.[9]

Despite the lofty goal of ending distracted driving, a closer review of the ‘Blueprint’ reveals it to be a vague policy.  The most significant deficiency involves giving money to the 11 states that do not have an anti-texting statute.  In order to combat distracted driving, laws may need to be enacted.  Unfortunately, the base requirement outlined in the ‘Blueprint’ only mandates that states enact an anti-texting law in order to receive federal money, nothing more.  The ‘Blueprint’ does not outline any guidelines and offers no suggestions as to how to laws that will have a meaningful impact.  The disappointing result of this approach may be seen across the country.

In Tennessee, for example, the legislature has enacted an anti-texting statute.  The anti-texting law calls for a $50 fine and states that all violation will be considered “nonmoving” and “no points shall be added to a driver record for the violation.”[10]  In contrast, a first offense under Tennessee’s DUI law mandates 48 hours in jail, a minimum $350 fine, driver license revocation, and many other penalties, both direct and indirect.[11]   Currently, no meaningful comparison may be made between the penalties for DUI and distracted driving in Tennessee.

The encroachment of electronic devices into our daily lives will continue.  We should expect that the problem of distracted driving to worsen.  Even though government agencies appear to recognize the threat of distracted driving, current policies do not adequately address the need for more preventative measures.  Unless and until government agencies and lawmakers begin to consider distracted driving as dangerous as drunk driving, we should also expect more of the same.

If you believe you were wrongfully arrested for DUI (drunk driving) because you were instead only distracted, you may contact Knoxville, TN DUI defense attorney Steve Oberman at (865) 249-7200 to schedule a meeting with you in order to determine if a viable defense exists in your case.  For more information about Mr. Oberman, you may link to his website at www.tndui.com.



[1] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Traffic Safety Facts: Distracted Driving 2009. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, September 2010. Publication no. DOT-HS-811-379. Available from http://www.distraction.gov/ 

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4]National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Traffic Safety Facts:  Alcohol-Impaired Driving. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Publication no. DOT-HS-811-385. Available from http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811385.PDF

[5] Id.

[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Injury Prevention & Control: Motor Vehicle Safety – Distracted Driving.  Available from http://www.cdc.gov/MotorVehicleSafety/Impaired_Driving/impaired-drv_factsheet.html http://www.cdc.gov/Motorvehiclesafety/Distracted_Driving/

[8] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, September 2010. Publication no. DOT-HS 811 629. Available from http://www.nhtsa.gov/staticfiles/nti/distracted_driving/pdf/811629.pdf.

[9] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Press Release: U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood Issues ‘Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving,’ Announces $2.4 Million for California, Delaware Pilot Projects. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, June 7, 2012.  Available from http://www.nhtsa.gov/About+NHTSA/Press+Releases/2012/DOT+Sec.+LaHood+Issues+Blueprint+for+Ending+Distracted+Driving,+Announces+$2.4+Million+for+California,+Delaware+Pilot+Projects

[10] Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-199.

[11] Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-10-401 et. seq.

About Steve Oberman

Steve Oberman
Since graduating from the University of Tennessee Law School in 1980, Mr. Oberman has become established as a national authority on the intricacies of DUI defense law. Steve is a former Dean of the National College for DUI Defense, co-author of a national treatise ("Drunk Driving Defense" published by Aspen/Wolters-Kluwer), and author of "DUI: The Crime and Consequences in Tennessee" (published by Thomson-Reuters/West). He has taught thousands of lawyers, judges, and members of the general public about the intricacies of this crime. Steve was selected as a Fulbright Scholar to teach at the University of Latvia School of Law in 2019. As a Tennessee DUI attorney, Mr. Oberman has successfully defended over two thousand clients charged with Driving Under the Influence of alcohol and/or drugs. In 2006, Mr. Oberman became the first DUI lawyer in Tennessee to be recognized by the National College for DUI Defense as a Board Certified Specialist in the area of DUI Defense law.

If you would like to contact the author, please visit: http://www.tndui.com


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