Most states have hands-free laws prohibiting drivers from texting behind the wheel and with good reason. Sending and receiving texts while driving is highly distracting, making it very difficult to keep track of what’s happening around you and substantially increasing the risk of a dangerous collision.
Some drivers, however, consider texting at a red light a gray area. At a red light, your vehicle is at a stop. You may feel comfortable picking up your phone and quickly responding to a text, even though it takes your hands off the wheel. But can you legally text at a red light? Read what our car accident lawyers have to say about this topic.
By the Law: Texting at a Red Light
Most laws regarding texting and driving state that drivers cannot text while the car remains in motion. Some laws do allow drivers to text while stopped at a red light. For example, New York law does not prohibit texting at a red light. In other states, the law may prohibit using a hand-held device entirely while behind the wheel. In Massachusetts, for example, drivers cannot text while stopped at a red light.
Pay careful attention to your state’s laws and regulations as you consider the possible dangers of texting at a red light. The law might allow the police to pull you over for texting while stopped, even if you didn’t believe you posed a danger to other drivers since you were not in motion.
Why You Should Avoid Texting at a Red Light
Many drivers do not think twice about texting while stopped at a red light. After all, with the car and traffic stopped, you may not think a quick text will pose any danger. However, texting at a red light can pose several unexpected dangers you may not realize when you pick up your phone to send that quick message.
1. When texting, the driver may not accurately track what happens around them.
Texting takes the driver’s attention off the road, hands off the wheel, and eyes away from their surroundings. At a red light, drivers may not feel they must pay full attention to the road. Many drivers engage in various behaviors at red lights that they might not necessarily engage in at other times: checking makeup, rescuing dropped items, or checking their phones. Unfortunately, multitasking can make it difficult for drivers to keep up with other things happening around them, which, in some cases, can make it impossible for those drivers to respond to a potential hazard. As a result, the drivers may be more likely to cause an accident.
2. Texting drivers may instinctively respond to movement around them.
Sometimes, a driver at a red light may respond to movement without fully noting the actual activity outside the vehicle. For example, a texting driver might notice movement outside the window and instinctively take their foot off the brake, easing forward. This movement, however, could be something other than traffic moving forward: a pedestrian trying to cross the street, a vehicle simply rolling a few inches forward, or even an animal or bird outside the window, for example.
Since the driver took their foot off the brake, the driver may end up colliding with another vehicle or even a pedestrian or cyclist. These dangerous actions can lead to life-altering injuries, including rear-end collision injuries.
3. It takes time to return your focus to driving.
Sometimes, drivers struggle to focus on the road when they shift from checking a text message to driving. For example, suppose you decided to answer a quick text while stopped at a red light. It may have taken you only a few seconds to respond to the text message, but that text message remains on your mind.
Cognitive distractions pose a serious danger behind the wheel. When you take your mind off the road, you lose many of your reasoning and problem-solving skills. As a result, you may have a harder time responding to potential dangers when you pull away from the red light.
You may not notice, for example, that another driver crossing the intersection did not stop when the light turned red or that a driver in front of you had to slam on his brakes instead of progressing smoothly through the intersection. As a result, you may end up causing a collision because your mind remained focused on your text message rather than your car and surroundings.
4. When you text, you often take both hands off the wheel.
Modern phones often rely on both hands and your eyes to effectively send a message. While touchscreen technology has many benefits, it also requires effort to send a message. When you take your hands off the wheel, you cannot respond skillfully to the many potential dangers around you.
You could still have your phone in one hand when the light changes. Often, you will think nothing of taking the extra moment to put the phone back down where it usually sits in your car before you pull out.
Unfortunately, if a hazard does appear, maneuvering your vehicle safely during this action is a challenge. With your hands on the wheel, you can maneuver around potential hazards. When you take your hands off the wheel, however, you may have a harder time managing obstacles or risks that come your way.
5. Many people do not want to stop mid-text or communication when the light changes.
You have just a few more characters to go before you can send your message. Surely you can safely finish your message, hit send, then return your attention to the road. Unfortunately, this process may not always go so smoothly. You may take your attention off the road for a few critical seconds when the unexpected happens.
Many accidents can occur in the first seconds after the light changes. You may find that a car headed through the intersection before the light changed stalled, and the driver could not get the vehicle through the intersection safely. A car may come flying through the other side of the intersection just as you start to proceed through it, resulting in a damaging collision. The car in front of you may brake suddenly, requiring a sudden stop and your full attention on the road to avoid a collision.
If you still have your attention on your phone when the light changes, you may not notice these possible hazards.
6. You may not pull out at the right time when the light changes.
If you have your head down while looking at your phone, you may not move forward as expected when the light changes. The vehicles in front of you and behind you may move, expecting you to do the same.
While the rear driver might bear liability for a rear-end collision that occurs because you did not move your vehicle fast enough, you may still end up with severe injuries and lifelong limitations resulting from the accident. By keeping your attention on the road, you can help keep traffic flowing smoothly and decrease the odds that you will end up in a damaging collision.
7. Texting at a red light increases the odds you will receive a return text while on the road.
Many people struggle not to look at a text message when it comes through, especially when the phone remains within reach. You may want to just glance down and stay updated on your conversation or future plans.
With your phone in easy reach, you may glance down at it, taking your attention off the road at a critical time. Furthermore, as many as 45 percent of Americans wear smartwatches and fitness trackers, which often directly connect to the wearer’s phone. When a notification comes through on your wrist, it may feel even more difficult not to look down and see what it says.
Unfortunately, checking messages on a smartwatch can pose an even greater danger than checking messages on your phone. Your smartwatch likely has a smaller screen than your phone, which means smaller text. You may have to wait for the message to scroll to see the full response, which means a longer period with your attention off the road. As a result, you may be more likely to get in an accident when you check your messages on a smartwatch.
Do You Bear Liability for an Accident Caused by Texting at a Red Light?
Whether you bear direct liability for an accident caused by texting at a red light may depend on your state’s laws and the conditions that led to the accident. In Massachusetts, which bans texting at red lights and texting on the road, you may bear liability for an accident caused by texting even when your vehicle did not directly cause the accident.
On the other hand, when you cause an accident because you took your attention off the road while texting at a red light, you will generally bear liability for that accident. That may include cases in which you caused a rear-end collision because you thought the car in front of you had moved forward or cases in which you caused a dangerous collision because you failed to note the progression of traffic through the intersection.
You may also bear liability if you stopped abruptly to check your cell phone or dropped your phone and hit another vehicle as you grabbed for it. Talk to a lawyer about the circumstances of your accident and who likely bears liability for your injuries.
What Should You Do After an Accident Involving Texting and Driving?
If another driver chose to text and drive, including texting while stopped at a red light, and caused an accident because of that negligent behavior, you may have the right to compensation for your injuries.
Protect your right to compensation by following these steps after your accident:
- Let the police officers at the scene know that you saw the other driver texting. In some cases, the police officers can verify that information, making it easier to prove that the other driver caused the accident.
- Get a copy of the police report. Make sure the police report has a clear, accurate reflection of the time of the accident.
- Contact a lawyer about the accident, especially if the police or the insurance company claim that you caused or contributed to the accident. A lawyer can help obtain evidence of texting and driving, including copies of cell phone records that may establish that the other driver chose to text and drive.
- Keep up with your medical bills and maintain copies of your medical records. You may have the right to claim compensation for medical costs related to your accident. An accurate look at your medical records can make establishing the compensation you deserve easier.
Following a texting and driving accident, you may be unsure what to do next or how to manage the expenses that accompany the accident. Contact a personal injury attorney immediately after the accident to discuss your next steps and how you can ensure you get the compensation you deserve for your injuries.
Mr. Finkelstein is the Managing Partner of Finkelstein & Partners, LLP. He has become a noted consumer activist through his representation of injured individuals against corporate wrongdoers and irresponsible parties.
An accomplished litigator, Mr. Finkelstein has represented Plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic personal injury cases. He has successfully handled dozens of multi-million dollar cases.