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Snapchat: reason for car crashes or just another phone app?

In the midst of forever advancing technology, can applications such as Snapchat be held liable for wrecks caused as a result of distracted drivers’ usage?

In an era of booming technology and increased use of these technologies, the ability for one to access their phone or applications on their phone at all times is more and more common, and as such, can become more and more dangerous.  Reliance on technology is not just a trend, but almost an epidemic, with teenagers and other adults having access to cell phones, tablets, computers, etc., at almost all times during the day.

Many campaigns have been launched against texting while driving.  It has been found that texting while driving increases the potential or risk of a car crash to twenty-three times more likely, and just reaching for your phone makes a driver about 1.4 times more at risk of having a crash while driving.  The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) has even launched a campaign against distracted driving.

[The United States Department of Transportation has] found that an activity that requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver is by far the most alarming distraction.

The USDOT defines distracted driving as an “activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.”  These distractions include, among others, using a cell phone or smartphone, watching a video, and texting.  They have found that an activity that requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver is by far the most alarming distraction.  The USDOT states that texting is such an activity, and therefore is more dangerous.  However, it can be argued that even using a cell phone or smartphone to do an activity that requires such attention can be alarmingly distracting – an activity, such as using the popular application, Snapchat, to compose text message like pictures through the use of filters and text capabilities, and send those pictures to friends through the application.

[E]ighteen-year-old Christal McGee was using the [Snapchat speed] filter while driving … attempting to get her speed over 100 miles per hour, so the Snapchat photo she took would have “100 mph” attached in the filter.

On September 10, 2015, an eighteen-year-old Georgia girl was driving her father’s car, and using the Snapchat application.  A popular feature of Snapchat’s is their multiple filters. One filter in particular is the speed filter, which allows one to take a picture and use the speed filters showing how fast the person is going at the time the picture is taken.  While the feature may not be entirely accurate at all times, eighteen-year-old Christal McGee was using the filter while driving on that September day attempting to get her speed over 100 miles per hour, so the Snapchat photo she took would have “100 mph” attached in the filter.  In McGee’s attempt to meet this high speed, she did not notice another car pull onto the highway she was speeding on, and they collided at approximately 107 mph on a 55 mph speed limited road.

A lawsuit was filed by the driver of the other car, Mr. Wentworth, against both Snaptchat and Christal McGee, alleging that Snapchat’s speed filter encourages reckless driving and can cause car accidents.  The suit further alleges that Snapchat knew that its users may use the filter in a manner that may distract them from obeying traffic or safety laws, and that Snapchat knew that its users might put themselves or others in harm’s way in order to “capture a Snap.”

McGee’s case was not the first instance of a person using Snapchat while driving and wrecking their car.  In fact in July of 2015, a Brazilian woman documented driving 110 mph on Snapchat, and further documented the progress of and the damage done from the wreck she had within minutes.  She suffered serious injuries.  Additionally, the complaint alleges that prior to McGee’s wreck, a petition had been conducted calling for Snapchat to remove the speed filter from the application, which the complaint uses to further allege actual knowledge of this risk on Snapchat’s part.

This spurs multiple questions.  First, should Snapchat be held liable for the girl’s wreck, for providing people with the ability to use a speed filter, which in turn does in fact encourage dangerous driving practices?  But also, should the individual driver herself be held responsible for the wreck for disregarding the laws of the State and the laws of the road, by feeling the need to document every single detail of a drive on Snapchat.  Finally, does this desire to post every detail of a drive on Snapchat or another application come from this technology use epidemic, and how can we combat that in the future?

The complaint alleges that Snapchat had actual knowledge of the risk of danger due to the speed filter, and chose to keep the filter on their application, and as such, was negligent.

The complaint alleges that Snapchat had actual knowledge of the risk of danger due to the speed filter, and chose to keep the filter on their application, and as such, was negligent.  They also allege that McGee was negligent in the operation of her car in the dangerous manner.  The complaint also alleges loss of consortium for Mrs. Wentworth for losses in companionship and consortium of her husband as a result of the negligence of McGee and Snapchat.

More and more people go to social media and technology for recognition and for social reinforcement.  In doing so, they do sometimes idiotic things, and post ridiculous or unsafe activities in order to get more likes or to get points on an application.  Should the application or technology be responsible, when the person using it decided to do something unsafe, and made his or her own choice to violate a law or do something unsafe?  The application puts the ability to conduct this activity into the user’s hands, and they, in some capacity, facilitate this unsafe activity.  However, the question remains, where is the personal responsibility for the user?

What part does this epidemic of technology use have to play in this particular wreck, or the wrecks caused by others who are also distracted drivers?  Cellphone use has been the cause of car accidents in the past, but it appears the increase in people being “plugged in” or having the ability to be plugged in, has caused a rise in such car wrecks.  But, where is the liability of the person as opposed to the technology.

Currently, forty-six states have a ban on texting while driving, two states prohibit text messaging while driving by novice drivers, one state restricts school bus drivers from texting, and one state (Montana) does not have a law on the books regarding texting while driving.

Technology will continue to develop, and as such, the possibility of more car wrecks and distracted driving, realistically, will also increase.  As such, we must take a look at technology and the policies we have for enforcing these laws to prevent distracted driving.  Most states have a law on the books regarding distracted driving.  Currently, forty-six states have a ban on texting while driving, two states prohibit text messaging while driving by novice drivers, one state restricts school bus drivers from texting, and one state (Montana) does not have a law on the books regarding texting while driving.

However, are these laws effective?  We continue to see an increase in car wrecks due to distracted driving, but states have laws prohibiting texting while driving or another form of distracted driving prohibition legislation.  Because of the continued rise in car wrecks involving texting while driving or distracted driving, legislatures need to reconsider their laws, and the penalties drivers may face for texting while driving.  These laws are not popular due to the rise in reliance on technology, but to keep roads safe, may be a necessity.

While, in this case, Snapchat was the application used by the driver prior to getting in the car wreck, it appears that the lawsuit, in fully being able to make its point of the facilitation of the use of the application while driving, should have brought suit additionally against the phone manufacturer, or the cell phone carrier, for also facilitating the use of the cell phone application while driving, and therefore causing the car wreck.  When considered in this way, it begs the question of who really is liable?  Is it the technology or is it the person?  This is a constant battle had by jury members, judges, attorneys, and society in considering these sorts of cases.

[T]he determination of who is responsible for that distracted driving is likely something that will continue to develop as technology continues to develop.

Distracted driving is dangerous, and that may be a common, agreeable statement among a majority of members of society.  But the determination of who is responsible for that distracted driving is likely something that will continue to develop as technology continues to develop.  This question will likely not stop with this Snapchat case, but as more applications are developed, or as different circumstances arise, the liability determination may be one that is never fully satisfied.  However, the result of this Snapchat case, if it goes to trial, could be a factor in likelihood of settlement for similar cases going forward­.

Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor
About Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor (42 Articles)
Regan Gatlin is a 2016 graduate and served as the Ethics Editor for the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. Regan graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Sociology. Regan has previously clerked for the Insurance Section of the North Carolina Department of Justice, The General Counsel of The Select Group, and Safran Law Offices. During her experiences clerking, she gained civil litigation and research experience in the areas of insurance, construction law, labor and employment, and compliance. She also competed on a Campbell Law Trial Team in the Buffalo-Niagara Mock Trial Competition and the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Mock Trial Competition. Regan is from Smithfield, North Carolina.
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