Distracted Driving

We live in a wired world in which more mobile devices are all the rage. The connectivity is captivating and offers many benefits. But when people can't put their devices down when they get behind the wheel, the multi-tasking becomes a menace.

The death toll alone shows this. Nationally, over 5,500 people a year die in distracted driving accidents. Federal researchers define "distraction" as "a specific type of inattention that occurs when drivers divert their attention from the driving task to focus on some other activity instead."

Click here to see Attorney Leonard Gabbay interviewed by KXAN on the Dangers of Distracted Driving

Austin Crash Causing Catastrophic Injuries

Last year, in Austin, Texas, a police officer diverted his attention from driving to enter information into his computer. This caused a crash that led to life-altering injuries for the motorcycle rider he collided with.

The accident occurred on May 29, 2010. The motorcycle rider, Louis Olivier, 74, was riding his cycle on Lamplight Village Avenue in Austin. The police officer, from the Austin Police Department, failed to yield the right of way, ran a stop sign, and collided with Olivier in the intersection of Magazine Street and Lamplight Village Avenue.

The injuries sustained by Mr. Olivier were very serious. Prior to the collision, he was remarkably fit. He regularly played tennis and visited with his friends. After the collision, his life is greatly diminished. He nearly lost a leg and endured twelve surgeries, including one to plant muscle from his back into his leg. Despite extensive physical therapy, Mr. Olivier is struggling to learn to walk again. He suffers from horrible disfigurement to his leg and to his back. He is unable to leave the house unattended now; his life will never be the same.

Product Defects in Onboard Computer

The police officer was driving a police department vehicle with an on-board computer that contained software for record-keeping and sending text messages. The Mobile Data Computer (Panasonic Toughbook) was designed, marketed and sold by TriTech Software Systems and Versatem U.S. Corp.

This software system did not have a built-in mechanism to block usage of the computer by an officer who was also driving. Such a mechanism was technologically feasible, and its absence must be considered a design defect of the software.

Police Department's Unsafe Use of On-board Computer

Because of the documented dangers of distracted driving, 30 states have various forms of bans on using cell phones or texting while driving. In Texas, there is a ban on cell phones and texting for bus drivers and for novice drivers, as well as for all drivers in school zones.

Austin, however, has imposed additional restrictions. In October 2009, the city passed an ordinance prohibiting texting while driving. The City Council chose to exempt the police department from this ordinance. But this exception for police was approved without any study whatsoever.

Reaction Time Data for Distracted Drivers

Using a computer while driving creates the type of condition that researchers at the University of Utah have called "inattention blindness." In the case of the Mobile Data Computer used by the Austin police, the officer's eyes are removed from the road four out of every six seconds.

Eyes on the road for two seconds out of every six is simply not enough. The mind cannot keep up with the multiple images; it becomes unable to process them.

Software Design Flaws and Negligent Police Department Policy

The problem of distracted driving by Austin police officers goes far beyond the conduct of any particular officer. It was deliberate departmental policy to buy and install the onboard computers and encourage officers to use them while driving. It was also deliberate departmental policy to seek and receive an exemption from Austin's new ordinance against texting while driving.

There is a certain irony - or double standard - in a policy that creates a texting ban but allows the officers who must enforce it to use electronic devices behind the wheel. Even with such a policy in place, however, there should have been a built-in ability to disable an officer's onboard computer when he or she is driving.

That is why Austin attorney Len Gabbay has included both the Austin Police Department and the makers and sellers of the Mobile Data Computer in his lawsuit seeking fair compensation for Louis Olivier's life-altering injuries.

This is not a case where the police officer was responding to an emergency. It was a regular patrol that went terribly awry due to a design defect in the onboard computer and a departmental policy that recklessly allowed and even encouraged electronic multi-tasking by police officers while driving.