There is an urban myth that began in the 1970’s about new-at-the-time automotive technology- cruise control. By various tellings, the gist of the myth is that a person who recently purchased a recreational vehicle got to freeway speeds, set the cruise control, and got up to make coffee. The myth continues, telling us that the individual, following the obviously imminent motor vehicle crash, is awarded a large personal injury settlement, claiming the technology was not explained correctly, causing the accident rather than the drivers distractions.

While this myth has been repeatedly unraveled over the years, it highlights an important topic. Automotive engineers are constantly coming up with new technology that makes our vehicles easier and safer to drive, but all this tech can lure drivers into a false sense of security. Today’s vehicles seem to have sensors for every potential threat, cameras that eliminate blind spots and early warning systems that even override driver control to apply the brakes, yet driver fatalities appear to be rising after decades of decline.

The United States Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration(NHTSA) reports that 37,133 Americans were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2017, a small decrease of 1.8 percent from the previous year, but fatalities on U.S. roads have increased around 15 percent since 2014, a trend that has attracted a significant amount of attention from legislators, attorneys and motor vehicle safety organizations. For the first time since record keeping began, fatal accidents are more likely to occur on city streets than rural lanes. Signs point to distracted driving as a significant contributing factor leading to the sudden, steep increase in fatalities.

There is no doubt that today’s cars are vastly safer than cars of the past. A stroll through a local vintage car show illustrates just how far we have come. Well into the 1960’s, most American automobiles had optional seat belts, non-collapsing steering columns, metal and steel dashboards and poorly functioning drum brakes. Cars of past eras were often beautiful and artistic, after all, the designers intended these cars to be visually appealing, but many of the designs seem as if safety was an afterthought if it was thought about at all.

In 1968, the first major safety requirements were instituted by the federal government requiring companies selling cars in the US to incorporate safe designs. The next year, 53,543 Americans died in 1,061,791 crashes, more than 26 deaths for every 100,000 residents according to data from NHTSA. The long term result of safety regulations is that in 2014, 45 years later, fatalities dropped to 32,744, an average of 10.3 deaths per 100,000 residents involved in more than six million collisions.

The differences in automobile design today are striking. Gone are the glittering chrome door handles and window cranks protruding from vinyl-covered cardboard door panels, replaced now with sculpted, padded panels with recessed handles. Steering wheels are heavily padded with spokes engineered to avoid catching and breaking fingers, something the thin-rimmed, metal-spoked wheels of the past were notorious for. Seating is now ergonomic, offering a compromise of comfort and safety no bench seat-equipped classic can claim. The old steel buckled lap belt that classics featured -if equipped at all- have been supplanted with lap-and-shoulder restraints for all passengers and air bags standard. Every automotive system, from dash design and layout, to exterior lighting and visibility is superior today and stresses safety over visual appeal.

The evolution of safety equipment in automobiles has brought us to a modern era, with new cars featuring a slew of safety equipment intended to alert drivers to potential hazards, active and passive restraint systems that make catastrophic collisions survivable and vehicles engineered to be controllable even during emergency maneuvers. Tomorrow’s cars will feature even more advanced technology that promises to reduce the inconsistent skills of drivers through the use of artificial intelligence, making roads safer and reducing the number of fatalities on and off the road. Entirely automated vehicles are already being testing in the United States. A few manufacturing companies, most notably rising automotive tech star Tesla, incorporate automated driving technology.

Among the trends leading to increases in fatal accidents, distracted driving is singled out as a significant cause. Studies have shown a direct connection to distracted drivers and motor vehicle collisions. The prevalence of smart phones in today’s society has been a major focus of legislation intended to make roads safer. In the last decade, 47 states, Washington D.C., and the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have enacted laws banning text messaging by drivers. The National Council for State Legislators points out that no state bans cell phone use completely, and only 16 have banned drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving.

Despite increasing attention by legislators nationwide attempting to curb the use of cellphones while driving, only a handful of states record data related to distracted driving. According to EndDD.com, an organization dedicated to ending distracted driving, even states that do document cellphone use likely underreport. It is estimated by the American Automobile Association (AAA) that as many as 58 percent of crashes involving teenage drivers using cellphones.

It is easy to see how cellphone use can quickly get a driver into trouble. EndDD.com states there are three types of distractions that affect drivers -manual, visual and cognitive- and cellphone use involves all three. The NHTSA states the average time to look at a text message is five seconds, long enough to drive the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour with your eyes closed.

Solving the distracted driving epidemic will require regulations, voluntary changes in behavior by drivers and developments in technology to actively reduce the distraction cell phones cause. Increasingly, today’s modern vehicles incorporate active warning systems to help drivers avoid accidents when distracted.

Consumer Reports reviewed four systems that are increasingly common today. Forward Collision Warning (FCW), Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), Lane Departure Warning (LDW), and Lane Keeping Assist (LKA) are four such systems that help to reduce the devastating results of distracted driving. After surveying owners, Consumer Reports found that about 70 percent reported they were very satisfied with the function of the systems. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) backed up Consumer Reports findings, demonstrating that features like FCW and AEB can reduce rear-end collisions by as much as 50 percent. Even older technology, like Electronic Stability Control (ESC), a standard feature since 2012, has demonstrated a 50 percent reduction in single-vehicle collisions and an 80 percent reduction in rollover accidents according to IIHS.

As more companies incorporate these features as standard equipment, it is anticipated that fewer accidents will result in fatalities. It is almost certain that in the near future, automated vehicles capable of fully handling all aspects of driving will be built and put into use. Several cities nationwide are currently testing the technology, with mixed results.

Many experts compare the current use of cell phones by drivers to the use of seat belts when that technology was in it’s infancy. In some studies, more than 80 percent of drivers believe using a cell phone while driving is dangerous, but nearly 40 percent admit to having sent a text message or email while driving. Drivers and occupants refusing to wear seat belts led to the incorporation of audible warning alarms that are standard in vehicles today. Only buckling up stops the annoying alert.

Technology to interrupt and prevent the use of cell phones while driving is available, but is voluntary. All major cell phone makers have apps available that prevent hand held use of phones, and several incorporate automatic messaging, letting the sender know that the person they are trying to contact is driving. A few programs even let parents see when their teen drivers switch the app off while driving.

In 2010, AT&T instituted a program known as “It Can Wait,” designed to record and reduce the prevalence of distracted driving a s a result of cell phone use. A 2015 report issued by the company shows that todays drivers are distracted by more than just text and email. More than a quarter of surveyed drivers reported surfing the internet and checking their Facebook accounts, and 12 percent admitted to shooting video while driving. Twenty seven percent of video-shooting drivers believe they are not distracted.

Recently, advocacy groups have begun calling on legislators to create mandatory preventative systems, even seeking to hold tech companies responsible for producing products that don’t have network-wide disabling features for drivers built in. While significant progress has been made to raise awareness and prevent distracted driving, some advocacy groups indicate that many technology developers are tone-deaf to safety concerns. These groups highlight the proliferation of so-called “infotainment” systems common in today’s vehicles.

Very little research exists concerning how distracting infotainment systems can be to today’s drivers. AAA joined the University of Utah to examine the levels of manual, visual and cognitive distraction caused by new vehicle infotainment systems used in 2017 and 2018 model cars. Some of today’s most popular vehicles are among the worst offenders, with Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac and Chevrolet taking the worst rankings. Not one of the 40 vehicles tested achieved a “Low Demand” ranking, while 29 were “High” or “Very High Demand” systems.

The Governor’s Highway Safety Administration (GHSA) estimates that 6,200 pedestrians were killed by drivers in 2018, the highest number of fatalities in 28 years. Some of the possible explanations include more pedestrians walking to work and a lack of well-lit road crossings. In nearly half of all fatal accidents involving cars and pedestrians, distracted driving was a contributing factor. GHSA also claims that a growing number of SUVs on the road today have led to more fatalities.

As automated vehicles become increasingly common, incidents involving cars operating in autonomous modes will increase. Only a few accidents have occurred and generally, some cause other than a malfunction has been identified. The Federal government, through the United States Department of Transportation is in the process of enacting legislation to standardize laws concerning autonomous cars. Many states have enacted laws regulating the technology, and several others are in the process of developing laws.

Many of the new safety technologies in use have the potential to reduce collisions, and in some cases, may even exempt drivers from being held liable. Generally, it is assumed that a traditional car is under the control of a driver, and in the event an accident occurs, the driver may be found negligent in their operation of the vehicle. Partially-autonomous vehicles and totally-autonomous cars of the future may result in claims of negligence by the auto manufacturer, the software developer, even the manufacturer of the parts used in the construction of the vehicle instead of the driver.

In states such as Pennsylvania, which has a comparative negligence standard, the addition of autonomous vehicles will add complexity to settling personal injury cases arising from collisions. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation indicates that the state distracted driving law can be applied to automotive features in addition to handheld cell phones and other devices. The fine is $50, plus an additional $90 in court fees. The violation does not count as a point against a drivers record unless they are engaged in commercial driving.

The laws intended to protect drivers in Pennsylvania have not been fully updated to account for new technology as of yet, but as the number of vehicles increases, precedent-setting cases will determine how personal injury law will be applied in the future.

If you or someone you care about has been involved in an accident with a distracted driver, or if you suspect crash avoidance technology that should have prevented an accident and did not, it is important to reach out to our attorneys today. The complexity and nuanced laws of Pennsylvania mean your rights can be jeopardized if you don’t know how to proceed. Our attorneys have the experience and knowledge to ensure you receive the benefits you deserve.