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Is Apple Liable for Distracted Driving Accidents?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, almost 20 percent of all traffic accidents involve distracted drivers, causing 3,179 deaths and an estimated 431,000 injuries in 2014 alone. And while drivers can be distracted by all kinds of things -- food, loud music, unruly passengers -- much of the attention has fallen on drivers texting and talking on the phone while driving. The NHTSA estimates 385 fatal crashes in 2014 involved the use of cell phones as distractions.

If all of these statistics make you wonder if cell phone companies are doing enough to prevent distracted driving incidents involving their products, you may have your answer soon. A new lawsuit against Apple, claiming the tech company is responsible for a fatal crash in Texas, may test the limits of liability for cell phone companies in distracted driving accidents.

Saving Drivers From Themselves

The underlying facts of the case are tragic: Ashley Kubiak was checking her iPhone for messages when her pickup collided with an SUV, killing the driver and passenger, and paralyzing a child. Kubiak was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to five years on probation, but families of the victims think Apple is also responsible for the crash.

Their lawsuit claims Apple knew its phones could be a distraction, but doesn't do enough to prevent drivers from using their phones behind the wheel. While the suit cites some scary statistics related to distracted driving, it's most damning piece of evidence is Apple's patent for technology that could prevent users from texting while driving and has yet to include it on its iPhones.

In its patent filing, Apple acknowledges, "Texting while driving has become so widespread that it is doubtful that law enforcement will have any significant effect on stopping the practice," and "Teens understand that texting while driving is dangerous, but this is often not enough motivation to end the practice." While Apple gives users the chance to lock their phones while driving, does it have the responsibility to take the choice, and its phones, out of drivers' hands?

Personal Liability

In its defense, Apple has moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that drivers should bear the responsibility of their actions, not third parties, and this suit could open the floodgates for:

Lawsuits against: fast food or any number of drive-thru restaurants for accidents caused when a driver gets distracted with eating while driving; hot beverage providers, or any business offering warm drinks to go, for accidents caused when a driver gets distracted with spillage or drinking while driving; cosmetic manufacturers for accidents caused when a driver gets distracted when applying makeup while driving; and similar liability may apply to providers of maps, books, car stereos --virtually any object in a car that is capable of causing distraction.

And when it comes to driving and accidents, personal responsibility is a common theme. After all, there were 9,967 fatalities in motor vehicle accidents involving alcohol-impaired drivers in 2014, 25 times more than those caused by cell phones. And car manufacturers aren't legally obligated to install ignition interlock devices on all cars. While Apple may not be liable for this particular accident, it may do well to give users more tools and information about silencing their cell phones while driving.

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