Should Car Phone Makers Be Liable? By David Worby on October 15, 2000

Car phone companies believe you can drive and talk at the same time. But a lawsuit filed in New York recently would hold them responsible for what drivers do behind the wheel.

Should Car Phone Makers Be Liable?New technologies can improve our lives. But when a new product – however beneficial it may be – has the side effect of placing lives in danger, then the manufacturer must take responsibility for protecting consumers.

And that is why I have just filed a case in state Supreme Court in Manhattan against Motorola, the largest manufacturer of mobile phones in America, for $35 million.

Cellular phones can be useful, but some studies have indicated that there may be thousands of automobile accidents each year because people use these phones while they drive. The manufacturers of car phones have the resources and the technology to prevent many of these accidents and they have a legal and moral responsibility to do so.

I represent Ronald Silber’s family, who were seriously injured almost two years ago when another driver, who was distracted by her Motorola car phone, crossed a double yellow line on Route 25 in Southold and crashed into them head-on.

My law firm’s research showed that what happened to this Bellport family was not an isolated incident. A study by the Rochester Institute of Technology found that having a cellular phone in a vehicle increased the risk of having an accident by 34 percent. A study by the Automobile Association of America found that drivers involved in cellular conversations were 30 percent more likely to fail to respond to hazards on the road.

Motorola and other car phone manufacturers claim that auto accidents aren’t their fault, that they can’t help it if a car phone is installed in the wrong position or if a driver takes his eyes off the road. If a driver is distracted by the car radio, that’s not the fault of the radio maker, they say. And if a driver decides to apply her make-up while driving, that’s not the fault of the cosmetics company, they say. But car phones are different. And I think they know it.

Using a car radio is hardly a distraction. In contrast, dialing seven to ten digits on a small keypad, focusing on an instrument not attached to the dashboard or answering a phone while driving 55 mph are significantly greater distractions. Applying make-up while driving is dangerous, but make-up is not intended for use while driving. Cellular phones are. Accidents involving the former are almost unheard of; accidents involving cellular phones are becoming commonplace.

Whatever their intentions, cellular phone manufacturers know that each year motorists are getting into accidents while using their products. They should do everything possible to make their designs safer and to ensure that their car phones are installed and used properly.

These companies seem to be doing nothing. For each car model they should determine the precise location where a phone could be most safely installed in order to minimize the visual distraction. And they should furnish this information to all installers and purchasers. They should include a free video to all purchasers of car phones on their proper usage and safety. A driver’s education class in Chicago offers this type of instruction. Why shouldn’t Motorola, a multi-billion dollar company, which is profiting from this enterprise? Their advertisements, manuals and instructions should have warnings printed in large letters. Their car phone designs should have built-in safety features such as voice-activated dialing and hand-free operation. And their own experts should conduct tests to determine whatever safety steps are necessary.

Driver safety should be their priority and I don’t think it is.

Common sense indicates how big a problem this is. Almost every driver has seen someone in another car drifting dangerously out of his or her lane while talking on a cellular phone. I hope that the lawsuit I filed will send a strong and clear message that it is the responsibility of car phone manufacturers to protect innocent people from their potentially dangerous products. 

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