Don't Be a Victim of Distracted Driving

Drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists are more likely than ever to be distracted by smartphones. Here are some tips for staying safe.

These are dangerous times for pedestrians and cyclists. Look at the statistics: Traffic crashes in the United States killed 5,987 pedestrians and 840 bicyclists in 2016, the most in about 25 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Many of those deaths were due to distracted driving. But it’s not just drivers who are preoccupied; pedestrians and cyclists are also more likely than ever to be engrossed in their smartphones and unaware of surrounding traffic.

With these sobering statistics in mind, now is a good time for a fresh look at the consequences of distracted driving, including insurance implications—and for tips on staying safe behind the wheel and on the street.

What happens if my distracted driving causes a crash?

Nearly all states ban texting while driving, and 15 ban handheld cell phone use for drivers. Penalties, which typically run between $20 and $300, might seem minor upfront, but major consequences can ensue if your distracted driving leads to injuries or property damage.

Your insurer will probably cover damages up to the liability limits in your auto or umbrella policy. However, if the injured party sues you and the case goes before a jury, you could also be subject to punitive damages beyond medical, wage loss, and pain and suffering costs. Punitive damages penalize the defendant in a civil lawsuit based on the theory that imposing additional damages on the defendant meets the interests of society and the victim.

Be aware, however, that in many states insurance companies may not cover punitive damages or may be legally prohibited from paying. As a result, the amount of the injured party’s damages that exceeds your liability policy limits may have to come from your assets. Policies vary widely, so it’s wise to meet with your insurance agent periodically to review your coverage.

How do I avoid distractions while driving?

Put your phone out of reach and out of sight whenever you drive. Or activate your smartphone’s “Do not disturb while driving” feature, which should silence most text messages, notifications (except for emergency alerts), and phone calls. For texts, some cell phones allow you to automatically send a return message that says you are driving and will respond later. Remember that pedestrians and cyclists are often distracted, too. Walkers, joggers, and bicyclists who use earbuds may not be able to hear your car as it approaches. Driving after dark and making turns requires extra vigilance.

How do I stay safe as a pedestrian or a cyclist?

Instead of looking at your phone while walking or biking, watch for oncoming traffic—not to mention curbs, signposts, and other hazards. Follow basic safety rules, such as using crosswalks and crossing with traffic lights if you’re on foot, and stopping at stop signs and traffic lights if you’re on a bike. Wear bright or reflective clothing at night, and keep your headphone volume low enough that you can hear approaching vehicles.

Finally, stay alert for distracted drivers. Before you step into the road, make sure approaching vehicles are stopped completely. If you can, make eye contact with the driver. You may have the right of way, but risking your life is not worth winning that argument.

Your insurance agent can provide more information. Visit an Auto Club branch, call (855) 222-5012, or go to AAA.com/insuranceinfo.

Top photo by Vitaliy Borushko / Alamy Stock Photo