In December 2014, a tragic auto accident occurred in Denton County, Texas. According to the Washington Post, Garrett Wilhelm, while using the popular Apple app, FaceTime, failed to notice the car in front of him slow down and caused a rear end collision which killed 5-year-old Moriah Modisette. Mr. Wilhelm was charged with manslaughter. Now, the Modisette family is involved in a legal battle with Apple, who they claim had the means to prevent the accident.
The focus is a patent filed by Apple in 2008 that would prevent their phones from being used when in a moving vehicle. The system, designed to ensure that drivers are not distracted by their phones by locking users out above certain speeds, has been in development, but to date has not been included in any phones since the patent was awarded, according to several news outlets, including The Guardian newspaper.
However, Apple claims that the system is unreliable, lacking the ability to distinguish between driver and passenger phones in the same car, or even the difference between passengers in cars or on trains and buses, according to The New York Times. External systems by other companies exist which are being tested for their ability to identify the exact locations of phones within a car, but have not been integrated into the phone's technology itself.
Who's responsible for safely using cellphones? People or corporations?
Apple, and other manufacturers, argue that they have a fine line to walk between public safety and ensuring that their customers are pleased with their products. Their concerns aren't entirely unfounded - when another popular app, Pokémon Go, released an update which prevented users from engaging in the game while moving at driving speeds, users were outraged.
Phone manufacturers watch such events with concern that rolling out a system that locks a customer's phone will send the market flocking to competitors. But the app did not lose any significant market presence over the update, and the manufacturers have a higher responsibility to keep their customers, and those on the road around them, safe.
The Modisette family claims that Apple shares responsibility for their daughter's death due to the company's reluctance to move forward with the lock-out technology. Specifically, the Modisettes claim Apple has the means to ensure that Mr. Wilhelm would not have been on his phone while driving.
In contrast, Apple maintains that the owners of their phones hold sole liability for using systems like Airplane Mode or Do Not Disturb mode in order to remain safe. But if they have the means to prevent deaths like this one and refuse to do so, should they be held accountable? Don't the victims of such decisions, and their families, deserve some compensation for their pain?
Lawsuits like the one filed by the Modisettes and a class-action lawsuit introduced in January involving the same technology claim that companies should implement such changes or be held legally responsible. Distracted driving accidents involving cellphones have become a deadly problem plaguing our country. And anything that can be done to prevent such accidents should be done as soon as possible.