Articles Posted in Driving Safety

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If you listen to politicians and the media, you might think drunk drivers are the most serious menace on the roads today. However, a new report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reveals another under-recognized danger: drowsy drivers. One in six fatal crashes involves a driver who falls asleep at the wheel. Part of my job as a Massachusetts OUI defense attorney is to protect my clients’ civil rights. Given the hysteria around drunk driving — and the lack of hysteria around the apparently far more common sleepy driving accidents — I am concerned about the disparity in how these threats on the road are treated under the law.

For the family and friends of people killed in car crashes, the loss of their loved one matters much more than the specific reason the driver of the other car was impaired. There may be many different ways to be distracted or impaired while driving, but all of them have the same dangers — injuries, deaths, and property damage. Jacquelyn Polito, a registered sleep clinician at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, said drowsy drivers may pose the same danger as drunk drivers with a blood alcohol count of 0.10 percent, which is actually above the legal threshold of 0.08. As I discussed recently, scientific research shows that texting drivers are even more dangerous than drivers who are drunk or high. And this summer, a study by the AAA found that pets are the third most dangerous distraction for drivers, after talking on the phone and texting.

Why is it that, of the many kinds of impairments or distractions that can cause accidents on the roads, the only kind that is treated severely under the law is drunk driving? Many of the other kinds of distractions and impairments are not even taken seriously by the law. For example, the new Massachusetts distracted driving law was passed without the ban on driving with pets in the driver’s lap that it originally included, and its penalties for texting while driving are far less severe than those for driving under the influence of alcohol. Instead of treating all dangerous driving equally, the law singles out drunk drivers for special penalties. Perhaps the real issue is social disapproval of drinking, not the level of danger posed by driving under the influence.

As irrational as it may be, it’s unlikely that OUI penalties are going to be relaxed anytime soon. That’s why it’s important for anyone charged with drunk driving to immediately contact a Massachusetts drunk driving defense attorney. There’s too much at stake in an OUI conviction to leave your fate up to chance. Even with a first OUI conviction, the penalties can include hundreds of dollars in fines and jail or probation for up to 2.5 years. Compare that with the simple $100 fine that drivers over 18 would face if caught texting.

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A new Massachusetts law went into effect on September 30, forbidding texting while driving for all drivers, and both texting and cell phone use for drivers under 18. As a Massachusetts OUI defense attorney, I’ve noticed that some news reports have called the penalties for texting “harsh.” This is interesting, since the penalties for texting are nowhere near as harsh as they are for drunk driving, even though studies have shown that texting while driving is actually more dangerous than drunk driving.

Lawrence Police Chief John Romero told the Merrimack Valley Eagle-Tribune that the texting law is “long overdue,” since texting has been the cause of many “tragedies.” The law punishes texting offenses with fines of up to $500 and up to a one-year loss of license. Romero notes, however, that it will be difficult to enforce the law because police can’t be certain what drivers are actually doing with their phones behind the wheel. Dialing while driving is still legal for drivers over 18. If police pull over a driver who appears to be texting, drivers can simply say they were just dialing a phone number. Without a warrant, police may not be able to check the drivers’ phones to find out whether they’re telling the truth.

Read article: Driving while texting incurs new penalties

What’s most striking to me, as a Massachusetts drunk driving defense attorney, is the gap between how the law perceives the dangers of texting compared to that of drunk driving. Britain’s Transport Research Laboratory found that texting drivers’ reaction times were 35 percent worse than when they weren’t texting, while the reaction times of drivers who were at the legal limit for alcohol consumption only deteriorated by 12 percent. Even drivers who had used marijuana performed better than texters, with a 21 percent slower reaction time. Texters were also 91 percent more likely than non-texters to veer out of their lanes, and were less able to keep a safe following distance from the vehicle ahead of them. Yet when a texting driver causes a fatal crash, Utah is the only state that subjects that driver to the same penalties a drunk driver would pay, with up to 15 years in prison.

In Massachusetts, a first offense for texting by drivers over 18 is punishable by a $100 fine. Drivers under 18 pay the fine, lose their license for 60 days, and complete a court-assigned driver attitude course. In contrast, the penalty for a first offense OUI is much steeper: It may include a jail sentence of up to 2 and a half years, a fine ranging from $500 to $5,000, hundreds of dollars in fees, and a license suspension of one year. The alternative “24D” disposition for a first-offense OUI is much harsher than that for texting too. A 24D judgment involves probation for up to two years; completion of an alcohol education program; a 45-day loss of license; and hundreds of dollars in fees.

There are lots of possible reasons for this disparity in penalties. Perhaps not as many people have lost loved ones to texting drivers as to drunk drivers, so the political will to do something about the problem has not developed. But even though the scientific evidence makes clear that texting is at least as much of a menace on the roads as drinking and driving, people charged with OUI face much more serious potential consequences than texters do. That’s why it’s so important for anyone charged with OUI to work with an experienced and knowledgeable Massachusetts intoxicated driving defense lawyer to help them navigate the system and get the best outcome — a dismissal of charges or a not-guilty verdict.

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One of the biggest issues on Beacon Hill’s agenda for 2010 is a proposed ban on texting while driving. As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson wrote Jan. 12, the state Legislature is debating the details of a proposed ban, including whether police should be able to pull over drivers they see texting. Similar bills have already died in the Legislature for six years straight, the columnist wrote, despite the fact that nineteen other states, and the city of Boston, have their own bans. And, Jackson wrote, despite the fact that multiple studies have shown that texting while driving is “the hi-tech equivalent of driving drunk.”

As a Massachusetts OUI criminal defense attorney, I’ve seen studies suggesting that Jackson is wrong — because texting while driving is actually more dangerous than driving drunk. In fact, one study, done in Britain, also found that texting while driving was more dangerous than driving under the influence of marijuana. The Royal Automobile Club Foundation, part of the British version of AAA, commissioned a study comparing the driving skills of drivers who were sending or receiving text messages; drunk; or high. Reaction times for the texters in the study dropped by 35%, while legally drunk drivers saw a 12% drop and drugged drivers saw a 21% drop. In addition, texters were a staggering 91% more likely to drift out of their lanes, as compared to 35% for the cannabis smokers.

Plenty of U.S. research has demonstrated that texting and driving is dangerous, but no formal study in the United States has compared texting and driving to drunk driving. However, Car and Driver magazine conducted its own informal study in 2009. On a closed course, the magazine measured reaction times at 35 and 70 mph for reporters who were sober, then texting, then above the 0.08 legal limit. The conclusion: Sending or receiving text messages increased reaction times significantly more than drinking. In fact, the older reporter’s reaction time of 0.57 seconds nearly tripled to 1.44 seconds when he was reading text messages and 1.36 seconds when sending them. At 35 mph, that meant traveling an extra 45 and 41 feet before the vehicle was stopped. By comparison, drinking gave him a reaction time of 0.64 seconds and seven feet of extra travel.

Given these results, it’s alarming that Massachusetts law penalizes drinking and driving so much more harshly than texting and driving. Reaching the 0.08 legal limit does not leave everyone intoxicated, but the law says you’re a drunk driver if you blow that number. And that means you face jail time, a license suspension, thousands of dollars in fines and a social stigma — even if there was no accident, no injury and no property damage. By contrast, Massachusetts law currently provides no penalties whatsoever for texting and driving, despite the evidence that it’s even more dangerous. As a Massachusetts drunk driving criminal defense attorney, I hope the Legislature addresses this issue decisively in 2010, in a way that puts operating under the influence in a proper, fair perspective.

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