Combating the dangers of texting while driving has up until this point focused on the texting drivers themselves, something New York just spent $1 million on for an initiative that funded vehicles specially designed to nab SMS-addicted drivers. But that focus has now changed: In New Jersey, if you text someone you know is driving, you're liable for what may happen.
Following a New Jersey appellate court decision this week, the definition of texting while driving was given this hefty appendage: Deliberately text someone who's behind the wheel and you too are considered present in the vehicle—"electronically present," according to three New Jersey judges.
The judges' broadened definition stems from a 2009 accident in New Jersey that involved a teen who was texting behind the wheel seconds before he struck a couple on their motorcycle.
The couple lost both of their legs and sued, but their lawsuit targeted not just the teen behind the wheel of the truck, it included his girlfriend too—whom the teen driver was texting a response to right before the accident occurred, according to court documents.
The couple lost their initial suit against the driver's girlfriend and appealed the decision, and this week marked the culmination of that appeal. The Superior Court of New Jersey on Tuesday upheld the lower court's decision, however. The girlfriend, who wasn't physically in the car at the time of the accident, wasn't charged.
What's notable about the case though is that, despite the couple's unsuccessful bid, three judges did concede to the plaintiff's attorney's argument: that the driver's girlfriend was "electronically present" in her boyfriend's truck.
"We hold that the sender of a text message can potentially be liable if an accident is caused by texting, but only if the sender knew or had special reason to know that the recipient would view the text while driving and thus be distracted," read the decision.
The judges note that this hinges on the driver "knowingly" texting someone behind the wheel, with situations involving parents or couples given as examples of when it could be determined.
"When the sender knows that the text will reach the driver while operating a vehicle, the sender has a relationship to the public who use the roadways similar to that of a passenger physically present in the vehicle," they wrote. "As we have stated, a passenger must avoid distracting the driver. The remote sender of a text who knows the recipient is then driving must do the same."
How exactly that would happen remains to be seen, as being electronically liable for a car accident, at this point, is without precedent. I imagine it would be difficult to prove that a person knowingly texted a driver—unless they texted exactly that, of course—but now the door's open for prosecution to argue that in the future. To be safe, you may want to avoid texting anyone at all in New Jersey for the foreseeable future.