(BPT) - Are you like many Americans who make phone calls while they're driving? Or text a friend or family member when you reach a stoplight? Or browse restaurant menus on your smartphone or tablet while driving around town, searching for a place to eat?
Did you know that in doing so you could be breaking the law?
Taking your eyes off the road can lead to car crashes. And, jail time, too, as an 18-year-old Massachusetts driver recently discovered, when he was convicted and sentenced to jail time for causing a traffic death while texting and driving.
With the growing use of smartphones and other electronic devices in today's automobiles, including GPS units installed in the dashboards of many new vehicles, auto crashes have risen significantly over the past five years. According to a 2010 statement by the National Safety Council, '28 percent of all traffic crashes - about 1.6 million crashes per year - involved drivers talking on their cellphones or texting.' The council estimates that at least 200,000 crashes directly involve texting while driving.
As a result, the U.S. Department of Transportation has called for a complete ban on cellphone (including smartphones) use by drivers. And 37 states and Washington, D.C. have banned text messaging while driving by all drivers in their jurisdiction, according to FindLaw.com, the nation's leading source of free online legal information. Ten states and Washington, D.C., also have banned hand-held use of cellphones while driving.
'Knowing your state's laws involving texting and driving is just as important as knowing the DUI laws,' says Nicholas Timko, an attorney at the law firm of Kahn Gordon Timko & Rodriques in New York City. 'In a growing number of states, texting is a primary offense, which means you can be pulled over on suspicion of texting, similar to drinking while driving. If you're found guilty, you can be heavily fined and lose your driving privileges.'
The use of an electronic device while driving also can have other consequences. If you're involved in a crash and used a cellphone or PDA shortly before or during the accident, you could be found guilty of negligence, which may lead to large monetary liabilities.
Texting while driving is only one aspect of a growing number of laws and regulations that address distracted driving. Here are additional tips from FindLaw.com about how to avoid distracted driving:
* Turn off your cell or smartphone and put it out of reach while you're driving.
* Configure your GPS and set your music station or portable music device before you begin to drive. Many cellphone and texting laws also involve electronic devices such as GPS units and MP3 players that could lead to distracted driving.
* Understand the laws for new or novice drivers. New or novice drivers in particular are the targets of many cellphone and texting laws. In some states, a teenage driver using a hand-held cellphone can be pulled over as a primary offense.
* Plan before you drive. Need instructions about how to get somewhere? Avoid taking your eyes off the road by creating driving instructions on a search engine and printing out a map. Pull over and stop to look at your map if you get lost or need to review where you're going. And leave early enough so you're not rushing to get where you're going.
* Ask a passenger for help if you need to look up something, get directions, make a call or read an email or text. Don't do it yourself.
* If you're traveling by car to another state, familiarize yourself with local texting and cellphone laws.
* If you're involved in a crash, don't attempt to throw away or hide your cellphone. Law enforcement can inspect cellphone records and determine precisely if you were using your cellphone or texting while driving.
* Pull over to a gas station or another safe location to make or take a phone call, text or surf the Web.
* Avoid other distractions. Put on makeup before you get in the car. Secure your pets if they're traveling with you. Don't eat or smoke while driving.