Snapchat: The Need for More Penalties for Distracted Driving

Michael Schulman

In New York State, a driver is not permitted to use his/her phone (or other portable handheld device) to talk, text, play games or to take pictures while operating a motor vehicle.  Fines for violation of this law can reach $150 for even a first offense. Is that fine high enough for the many types of distracted driving?

It has long been a known fact that the law often fails to keep up with technology. As technology advances and types of apps used by individuals on their phone changes, the law struggles to match pace.  A classic example of this failure is the rise of Snapchat and the dangers it poses to every driver on the road.

Most New Yorkers are aware that they can use their cell phone to text and send pictures to others using their phone with relative ease.  Most are also aware that you can send messages through a number of different apps on their phone including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, among others.

snapchat distracted driving, Michael B. Schulman, Melville, New York, attorney

However, there is another newer app that is growing in seemingly ever-increasing popularity, especially among the younger generation: Snapchat.

Snapchat is a picture sharing app that can be downloaded on both Apple and Android phones. It functions like many other apps and is designed to share pictures between users with a quick caption.  The catch however, is that whichever phone apps download the Snapchat picture they can no longer look at the picture at their leisure and save it to the file their phone, as Snapchat only makes the picture available on the phone for a maximum of 10 seconds once it has been opened.  Afterwards, the “snap” is deleted.  A user can save the picture in their phone, but only if they act quickly enough to save it before the 10-second timer expires.  In addition, the snap must be opened within 24 hours, or the snap will be deleted before it is even viewed. This adds a certain sense of urgency for Snapchat users to stay on the app and see the pictures that are made available for a limited time.

So now, if you are a young (or old) driver who receives a snap, this understandably creates a sense of urgency to open and view the picture as quickly as possible and attempt to save it before the picture is deleted forever.  This would therefore pose an even greater danger to a driver who opts to view a picture on Snapchat rather than on more “traditional” forms of distracted driving.

The more “traditional” forms of distracted driving such as reading a text, speaking on the phone or even viewing a picture message, while certainly not safe by any stretch, and rightfully outlawed, at least allow a driver to swivel between the road and their phone.  Snapchat does not afford a driver that opportunity.

In a 10-second window, a driver being distracted by “traditional” means may alternate between their phone and the road multiple times without fear of missing the message.  However, a Snapchat user, due to the rules of the app, will be more focused on the picture to view and attempt to save the snap before time expires and spend considerably less time focused on the road.  As every driver knows, a lot can happen on the road in ten seconds.

Due to the nature of Snapchat and the unique potential danger it poses by its functionality, it is arguably much more dangerous than the traditional forms of distracted driving.  Because of this increased danger are additional penalties needed for drivers who knowingly engage in such behavior?

On one hand, there is the argument that distracted driving is distracted driving and a law is already in place that is designed to curtail the practice.  On the other hand is the fact that lawmakers did not know or consider the implications of such an app when the law was made.

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