TikTok and Other Social Media – Major Distractions Behind the Wheel

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Recently, the Georgia Supreme Court revived a lawsuit accusing Snap Inc. of designing an app filter that encourages reckless driving. Snap Inc. is the company behind the social media platform Snapchat. The lawsuit was originally filed in 2016 by Wentworth Maynard, the victim of a horrible 2015 car crash. 

Maynard and his wife were traveling in their Mitsubishi Outlander when 18-year-old Christal McGee smashed into the couple, driving her Mercedes at over 100 mph. Passengers in McGee’s car claim she said she wanted to get her speed up to 100 mph so she could take a picture with Snapchat’s “speed filter,” which indicates in the post how fast a user is going when they snap the photo.  

The lawsuit also said that one of McGee’s passengers was pregnant at the time of the accident and begged her to slow down before she struck Maynard’s car, sending it careening off the road and into an embankment. 

After the crash, McGee took a selfie at the scene of the accident and posted it on Snapchat with the tagline “lucky to be alive.” She later was criminally charged with “Causing serious injury with her vehicle” and pleaded no contest.

Maynard suffered traumatic brain injuries and underwent months of hospitalizations and rehabilitation. He alleges he still has not fully recovered from his injuries.

Social Media on Trial

Snap Inc. has since disabled its “speed filter,” and their lawyers have consistently said the app’s terms of use “forbid the use of the app for illegal purposes.” They have also argued that the speed filter comes with a pop-up alert that warns users not to use Snapchat while driving. The company has said it has no control over McGee blatantly ignoring their warnings and misusing the app.

The Georgia Court rejected that state law provides exceptions to liability for companies when consumers intentionally misuse a product. Instead, the Georgia court said companies like Snap Inc. have a duty to design apps that avert risks for their users.

This decision overrules the divided three-judge appeals court, which ruled in Snap Inc.’s favor last summer. Although the decision opened a line for future appeals, the court asserted that plaintiffs claiming manufacturers were negligent must prove the companies’ design was the proximate cause for alleged injuries. 

In the past, courts have rejected product liability claims against phone companies because there are valid reasons drivers might use their phones while operating a vehicle, but no good reason to use a Snap speed filter could be presented.

Snap Inc. consistently resighted their terms of service to shirk responsibility and place the blame on their users, but they were rebuffed by the court. The plaintiff’s lawyer claimed the selfie McGee posted in the aftermath of the crash illustrates the “profound effect” social media platforms like Snapchat have on users.

This ruling was referred to as a “roadmap” for future claims against social media companies that design products that fail to prevent risk or put their users in danger. 

TikTok Chimes in with New Dangers for Drivers   

TikTok has taken up a lot of screen time lately. It seems to produce a new viral event daily—silly and educational videos, dance crazes, and sing-alongs. Both Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have even shared battle-strewn images of the recent invasion. Millions are uploading and sharing videos on TikTok. Mostly because it is so easy. Some people are even recording TikTok videos while driving and do not fully realize the risks. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), if a car is moving at 55 mph, it takes mere seconds to travel the length of a football field. In the estimated five seconds, it takes to read a comment on a TikTok video, who knows what could happen in those 100 yards to an inattentive driver or those in their path. 

A driver’s eyes could be off the road for even longer if they decide to record a video or live stream while behind the wheel. There are three types of distractions involved with recording videos and driving: 

  1. Visual Distractions – averting eyes from the road
  2. Manual Distractions – using hands for actions other than steering
  3. Cognitive Distractions – allowing thoughts to focus on other tasks aside from driving

Maintaining an online presence may seem important. Gaining new followers and producing updated content might seem like a pressing issue, especially to teenagers and twenty-somethings. But while operating a vehicle, a driver’s attention, both physically and mentally, should remain on the shifting conditions of the road.

Follow the Data

Iowa’s Department of Public Safety reports that more than 3,100 people were killed in the United States by distracted Drivers in 2019. In Iowa, more than 1,000 car crashes were caused by cell phone distractions in 2018. 

Of the estimated 55,000 car accidents Iowa sees each year, most of them stem from distracted driving and could be prevented by drivers simply staying alert and keeping their eyes on the road. 

Updating and engaging on social media is not the only problem. Distracted driving is classified by the Iowa Department of Public Safety as any action that diverts attention from driving. This could include: 

  • Eating and drinking
  • Texting or talking on the phone
  • Focusing too long on the radio, navigation, or other systems
  • Talking to passengers

The number of crashes caused by distracted drivers boomed over the last two decades, especially after most drivers became smartphone users a little over a decade ago. In 2017, there was a downswing of these numbers in Iowa after changes were made to the law, allowing police officers more freedom to cite drivers who are seen using their phones behind the wheel of a vehicle. These laws prohibit drivers under the age of 18 from even using a hands-free portable communication device while operating a car. 

If you or a loved one’s life has been impacted by a distracted driver, the Des Moines or Cedar Falls’ personal injury attorneys at Mueller, Schmidt, Mulholland & Cooling can help.