Cognitive Distraction and Car Accident Cases

Driver inattention can be as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.

Many car accidents are caused by the "cognitive distraction" of the driver. Cognitive distraction is simply another way to describe driver inattention, i.e., not keeping your eyes and mind on the road.

Driver inattention can be as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. A safe driver pays attention to the road, while, in contrast, a distracted driver literally doesn’t see what is in front of his/her face. Paying attention to the road means paying attention to what is in front of you, what is to each side, and to what is behind you. Not paying attention to the road is negligence, plain and simple, and can be decisive in a finding of fault for a car accident.

The Dangers of Cognitive Distraction

The dangers of cognitive distraction can be shown by realizing exactly how far a car can move while a driver is not paying attention.

For example, 60 miles-per-hour equals 88 feet per second. So, if you are driving at 60 MPH and take your eyes off the road for just 2 seconds, your car will move 176 feet while you are not looking. Perhaps if you were on a completely empty road in the middle of the desert, you can be assured that absolutely nothing will happen if you close your eyes for 2 seconds at 60 MPH, but in city driving, where the roads are more crowded and people can walk or run into the street, almost anything can happen in 2 seconds.

Some of the more common forms of cognitive distraction while driving are:

  • reading a map on one’s lap
  • dealing with children in the back seat
  • changing the station on the radio
  • looking at something or someone by the side of the road
  • looking at directions
  • reading while driving
  • dealing with an iPod, iPhone, iPad, or any other electronic device
  • talking on a non-hands-free phone
  • texting
  • getting something out of the glove compartment
  • picking up something off the floor
  • adjusting your seat
  • blowing your nose
  • getting something out of your pocket
  • getting something out of the back seat
  • eating or drinking

The list can go on and on. Basically, anything that causes a driver to take his/her eyes, concentration, and focus off of the road is a cognitive distraction. Even talking with the passenger or singing along a little too heartily to the radio can be a cognitive distraction. It is not uncommon to get fired up listening to a good song on the radio, and, before you know it, you are doing 85 MPH on the highway.

How Does Cognitive Distraction Affect Liability for a Car Accident?

Once again, cognitive distraction is negligence, plain and simple. If a plaintiff’s lawyer can prove that the defendant in a car accident case was doing something to cause his/her attention and focus to be taken off of the road, the plaintiff is likely to win.

If the defendant’s lawyer decides that his/her client was cognitively distracted, that is when the lawyer recommends to the insurer that it seriously think about settling the case. If you were the cognitively distracted driver who just got into a car accident, you can assume that the accident will most likely be your fault, and that your car insurance premium will likely be going up.

Proving Cognitive Distraction

Driving is one of our national pastimes. No driver is going to admit that he/she was distracted while driving. Therefore, the opposing lawyer has to prove cognitive distraction based on the circumstances. For example, at the deposition, a good lawyer will go through a long list of actions that a driver could conceivably do while driving. The lawyer will certainly ask the opposing party whether he/she was doing any of the things listed above, and much more.

In a nutshell, the lawyer wants to know if the driver was doing absolutely anything at all in the car other than just driving in the seconds leading up to the accident. Was the driver talking? Was the driver sneezing or blowing his/her nose? Even a task so minor as adjusting the ventilation forces a driver to take his/her eyes off the road. Ultimately, cognitive distraction boils down to whether the driver saw what was there to be seen.

But a good lawyer will not just rest on what the driver says at the deposition. The lawyer might also subpoena the driver’s cell phone records just to be sure. If the phone records show a phone call or a text at around the time of the accident, that is strong evidence that the driver was not paying attention to the road. Where the driver was looking before the accident is also significant. Perhaps someone might have observed whether the driver was looking forward or perhaps looking down (and possibly texting).

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