Try placing your smart phone in airplane mode while you read this. Though my words take less than five minutes to read, many of you will be angst-ridden while the phone sits silently beside you. I am a catastrophic-injury lawyer who represents brain-injury survivors whose injury was caused by another’s negligence. As March is National Brain Injury Awareness Month, it is an excellent time to talk about distractedness and our general lack of focus as we go through our lives. From what I have seen representing brain-injured people, the proliferation of smart phones has contributed to our distractedness, which often leads to needless life-altering injuries.
The statistics are astounding. In 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted drivers killed 3,477 people. They severely injured another 391,000. The fatal crash rate for teens is three times greater than for drivers over 20. The American Automobile Association found that driver distraction is responsible for 58% of teen crashes. And it is not just distracted drivers that are doing damage. Several years ago, I represented a family whose daughter drowned in a local swimming pool. When we investigated the case, we learned that the lifeguard had sent/received over 300 texts in her first hour on duty. I see distractedness causing injury in all aspects of life.
Traumatic brain injuries (“TBI”) are an all-too-common result from our distractedness. While the public has become more cognizant of TBIs given our recent knowledge about football concussions, TBIs are not limited to professional athletes taking violent hits. TBIs change lives in many ways. For one, the TBI survivor looks healthy. There are no outward signs of a TBI. Thus, when a TBI survivor tries to order a cup of coffee, she often gets curious stares when the words come out jumbled. Similarly, while we have made great strides in TBI treatment, there is still a long way to go. While the medical profession is doing a good job of getting certain people back to “baseline,” baseline is only as good as how it is defined. We all have different baselines, which is why some TBI survivors can return to work but others cannot. Further, the effects of TBI can range from temporary to permanent, and there is no way to determine who will be affected and how severely.
Given my profession, it is my job through litigation to obtain resources the TBI survivor will need to get through life. As you can imagine, the costs can be staggering, particularly if the TBI survivor was a high-wage earner and can no longer support the family. And sadly, juries (a reflection of society) have hardened in their response to brain-injury survivors because these injuries cannot be visually seen on CT Scan or MRIs. While I can only rely on my personal and anecdotal experience, I believe this is also fueled by virtually unlimited advertising budgets of large entities seeking to avoid the full responsibility of their negligence. They have convinced too many people to void the social contract.
Historically, one of America’s greatest attributes has been our social contract with one another. Our social contract relies on common sense, our sense of community, and our belief in helping one another. The social contract calls for respectful personal interaction, which not only enriches us, but also fosters camaraderie. And camaraderie mandates looking out for one another. Distractedness not only invites danger, it weakens the social contract.
The social contract equally applies to collective groups of individuals. As one famous institution reminds us, corporations are people too. As corporations and their products have further infiltrated our daily lives, those corporations also bear responsibility for their negligence. The concept of corporate responsibility, whether administered through the social contract or litigation, is central to keeping us safe.
How can you change this? If you are engaging in an activity where distractedness could result in harming another, avoid the distraction. Society flourished even before smart phones! You have, no doubt, heard the ad campaigns noting that the text message you got while driving “can wait.” This is true.
There are many resources available to those who want to learn more, or teach others, about avoiding distractions. One organization that I rely on to give talks to students about distracted driving is ENDD (www.endd.org), an organization dedicated to ending teenaged distracted driving. There are also amazing people and groups that provide resources to brain-injury survivors and to their caretakers. My favorite local group is Brain Injury Services of Northern Virginia (www.braininjurysvcs.org).
So, let’s use March – Brain Injury Awareness Month – to become a little less distracted. You may save a life or avoid an injury, you will re-discover life beyond the screen in front of you, and you will re-enforce the social contract.