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Distracted Driving vs Drunk Driving: Punishment Is Unequal

April 5, 2024 by Steven M. Gursten

Distracted driving vs. Drink driving: unequal punishment

Why is the punishment for distracted driving vs drunk driving so different, despite both posing very similar risks of causing a car accident? The science shows that texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in a car crash, and drunk drivers are 4 to 23 times more likely. Yet today drunk drivers face jail, huge fines, points and license suspensions, and texting drivers do not.

When comparing the penalties for distracted driving vs drunk driving in Michigan, it is important to consider the following:

  • Distracted driving is a mere civil infraction. (MCL 257.602b(4))
  • It carries a $100 fine for a 1st violation and/or 16 hours of community service. (MCL 257.602b(4)(a); 257.907(2)(h)(i)(A))
  • It carries a $250 fine for a 2nd or subsequent violation and/or 24 hours of community service. (MCL 257.602b(4)(b); 257.907(2)(h)(i)(A))
  • Drivers with 3 or more distraction violations within a 3-year period must complete a “basic driver improvement course.” (MCL 257.602b(8))
  • Distracted drivers will get 1 point on their driving record for a 2nd violation of MCL 257.602b. (MCL 257.320a(1)(y))
  • Distracted drivers will get 2 points on their driving record for a 3rd or subsequent violation of MCL 257.602b. (MCL 257.320a(1)(x))
  • Fines are doubled when a driver violates Michigan’s distracted driving laws and is at-fault for causing a crash. (MCL 257.602b(6); 257.907(h)(i)(B))
  • However, the texting driver has no risk of having his or her driver’s license suspended. (MCL 257.319)

Yet, drunk driving penalties vs distracted driving are more harsh as drunk driving is a misdemeanor which is punished with jail time, up to $500 in fines, community service, points on the drunk driver’s record, a mandatory license suspension, vehicle immobilization and enhanced penalties if a drunk driver kills or seriously injures another person. (See MCL 257.625(1) and (9)(a)(i-iii); 257.320a(1)(c); 257.319(8)(a); 257.904d(1)(a); 257.904e(1); 257.625(4)(a); and 257.625(5)(a)). In many counties in Michigan, such as Oakland County, you are almost assured of at least some jail time if you are caught drunk driving.  

As I said above, when looking at distracted driving vs drunk driving in Michigan, the dangers posed to the innocent driving public and to our families is the same.  And as an auto accident attorney, I have personally seen the havoc that texting and driving is causing on Michigan roads.  

Distracted driving poses an equal – if not greater – threat to the public safety and to our families vs drinking and driving does today, and the science and research shows distracted driving is just as deadly. 

But despite the science, and despite the threat to the public, distracted driving is still treated very differently vs drunk driving. Police officers in my own car accident injury cases rarely check to see if the at-fault driver who causes a car accident was texting and driving in the moments before impact, although they are finally starting to routinely check in the case of fatalities.

For far too long Michigan has treated drunk driving differently vs distracted driving, punishing these two very similar threats to our public safety very differently.

There is, of course, a good reason for this. There was a time not too long ago when drunk driving was treated just as lax by our courts and law enforcement as distracted driving is now. It was only when our society, thanks in large part to groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said collectively “enough,” that the penalties for drunk driving across the nation were increased.  

Now is the time for lawmakers to similarly step up. It is time for the punishment to be commensurate with the crime.  

Dangers of driving while distracted

A texting driver is 23 times more likely to be involved in a car crash than a non-texting, non-distracted driver. Similarly, a driver who is dialing a hand-held cell phone is 12 times more likely to crash than a driver whose hands are on the wheel and whose eyes are on the road.

The obvious dangers of distracted driving are not only that unavoidable crashes will occur, but that senseless, preventable deaths and injuries will result.

Research shows that texting while driving takes a driver’s eyes and attention away from the road for 4.6 seconds. If the driver is traveling at 55 mph, then he or she will have driven “blindfolded” the entire length of a football field (including in the end zones) during those 4.6 seconds.

Dangers of driving while drunk

When comparing the dangers of drunk driving vs distracted driving you see the likelihood of a drunk driver to be in a crash increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. For instance, compared to sober drivers, drunk drivers who have a blood alcohol content 0.05 to 0.079 are 7 times more likely to be in a fatal crash and 6 to 17 times more likely to be killed. Similarly, drivers with a breath alcohol content of 0.08, 0.10, 0.15, or 0.20+ are 4, 6, 12 and 23 times more likely to crash.

What’s more dangerous?

When comparing distracted driving vs drunk driving, distracted driving is as dangerous as drunk driving – if not more so. Studies report that the impairments from “using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk.” They also state that texting while driving is 6 times more dangerous than drunk driving.

Here is what the research says about the comparative dangers of distracted driving vs drunk driving:

  • The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has stated that the impairments caused by distracted driving “may rise to the level associated with drunk driving.” Specifically, in its study, “Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile,” the AAA-FTS concluded: “Increasingly, car manufacturers and third-party providers are presenting consumers with options to make movie or dinner reservations, send and receive text or e-mail messages, make postings on Facebook, interact with global position systems, and utilize voice commands for controlling functions of the vehicle. The lessons learned from the current research suggest that such voice-based interaction is not risk-free, and in some instances the impairments to driving may rise to the level associated with drunk driving . . . Just because a new technology does not take the eyes off the road does not make it safe to be used while the vehicle is in motion.”
  • A study from the University of Utah concluded that “people are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit.” The researchers stated that “[i]mpairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk,” adding that “driving while talking on a cellphone is as bad as or maybe worse than driving drunk.”
  • Forbes has reported that texting is “6x more dangerous than driving while intoxicated.”
  • Car and Driver Magazine conducted a ground-breaking test which determined that distracted driving behavior of texting while driving was more dangerous vs drunk driving because driver reaction time was considerably slower when a driver was reading or writing a text message than when the driver was intoxicated.

How different are the punishments for distracted driving vs drunk driving?

The punishments for distracted driving vs drunk driving in Michigan are vastly different.

Driving while distracted is only a civil infraction. The maximum fine for first time offenders is only $100 and there is no jail time for violators – whether they are first-time, second-, or third-time offenders. Points on their driver’s license only comes with a second or subsequent violation. And there is no vehicle immobilization or license suspension.

Meanwhile, the array of penalties for drunk driving includes jail, fines up to $500, points on a driver’s record, and a mandatory license suspension.

To illustrate how different the punishments are for distracted driving vs drunk driving, here are all of the potential penalties that a drunk driver – but not a texting driver – will face in Michigan:

  • Up to 360 hours of community service. (MCL 257.625(9)(a)(i))
  • Up to 93 days in jail. (MCL 257.625(9)(a)(ii))
  • Up to $500 in fines. (MCL 257.625(9)(a)(iii))
  • Up to 180 days of vehicle immobilization. (MCL 257.625(9)(e); 257.904d(1)(a); 257.904e(1))
  • 6 points on your driving record. (MCL 257.320a(1)(c))
  • Mandatory 180-day driver’s license suspension. (MCL 257.319(8)(a))
  • Up to 15 years in prison if a drunk driver kills someone. (MCL 257.625(4)(a))
  • Up to 5 years in prison if a drunk driver causes someone to suffer a serious impairment of body function. (MCL 257.625(5)(a))

Differences in getting arrested for distracted driving vs drunk driving

The difference between getting arrested for distracted driving vs drunk driving is as great as the difference in punishments. The texting driver need not provide any evidence incriminating him- or herself, whereas the drunk driver must submit to chemical tests of blood, urine and breath.

Under Michigan’s “implied consent” law, a person who drives on a Michigan roadway is “considered to have given consent to chemical tests of his or her blood, breath, or urine for the purpose of determining the amount of alcohol or presence of a controlled substance or other intoxicating substance, or any combination of them, in his or her blood or urine or the amount of alcohol in his or her breath . . .” (MCL 257.625c(1)(a))

That means that a person arrested for drunk driving can be required by the police to take not only a “preliminary chemical breath” test, but can also be required to submit to “chemical tests and analysis” to determine the amount of alcohol (or controlled or otherwise intoxicating substance) in his or her blood, urine or breath at the time that he or she was driving. (MCL 257.625a(2); 257.625a(6)(a))

If a driver refuses a police officer’s request to take a chemical test of blood, urine and breath, then his or her driver’s license will be suspended for 1 year and 6 points will be added to his or her driving record. (MCL 257.625a(6)(b)(v); 257.625f(1)(a) and (7)(a))

When comparing the implied consent law for drunk driving vs distracted driving you will see that there is no “implied consent law” for distracted driving. It’s time for Michigan to enact an “implied consent” law for texting and distracted drivers that would allow police to search a texting or distracted driver’s cell phone for evidence that he or she was texting or otherwise distracted by the cell phone while driving.

Have questions? Call a Michigan Auto Law attorney for a free consultation

If you have questions about distracted driving vs drunk driving accidents in Michigan, you can call us toll free anytime 24/7 at (800) 777-0028 for a free consultation with one of our experienced auto accident attorneys. We help victims and families who have been injured in both types of crashes. We will answer your questions about your and your family’s legal rights to pain and suffering compensation, economic damages and auto No-Fault insurance benefits, and settlements in cases like yours. There is absolutely no cost or obligation. You can also get help from one of our experienced injury attorneys by visiting our contact page or chat feature on our website.

(Source: MADD, Studies on the Effectiveness of .05 BAC; NHTSA, Traffic Safety Facts, Research Note, Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk)

Distracted Driving vs Drunk Driving: Punishment Is Unequal

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