Snapchat and Teens – Social Media App Creates New Risks on the Highway
The picture sharing app Snapchat has apparently surpassed Instagram as the most loved social media platform for U.S. teenagers, and drivers across the country would be wise to take note.
Last year, we discussed the frightening prevalence of teen texting and driving. The dangers of texting behind the wheel are obvious: composing or even just reading a text requires far too much attention from anyone who is simultaneously in control of a very large and powerful vehicle.
Teenage drivers, who are already handicapped by their lack of experience on the road, tend to be more susceptible to this behavior than the rest of the population; but it is not just texting that draws teens’ eyes from the road. As smart phones have become more popular for Americans of all ages, teens have grown particularly attached to the social media apps on their iPhones and Androids, a dependency that doesn’t stop in the car. Just like a text, a notification from Instagram or Facebook may be hard for many teen drivers to ignore even while their cars are in motion.
Snapchat, which a recent survey has identified as the “most important” social media platform for the high school crowd, presents a unique set of risks for young drivers.
When a Snapchat user opens a photo or a video that they have received from another user, they have a finite amount of time – 10 seconds at most for a photo or the length of a video “snap” – to view the content before it disappears forever. With this sense of urgency built into the app, teen drivers could be even more likely to look away from the road when they receive a snap than when they receive a text, which they can always view again after parking.
At the same time, there is an obvious danger in drivers sending snaps from the road, a behavior that seems encouraged by Snapchat’s “story” feature, which many users use to chronicle moments large and small throughout their day. When you see something amusing or otherwise worthy of your story on the highway, you may feel compelled to get the photo, though it might seem ridiculous to pull over to do so.
Snapchat’s “Speed Filter” – An Accident Waiting to Happen
If the app’s basic setup isn’t enough to alarm the parents of teenagers, a relatively new feature on Snapchat seems almost designed for drivers to use with their foot on the gas. Snapchat’s popular “speed filter” is used to track how fast a phone is traveling while a user takes a snap, automatically overlaying a caption with the miles per hour onto the photo or video. Take a snap while you are driving 90 miles per hour down the highway and in the push of a button, all of your followers will know.
The appeal of documenting extreme speed for a thrill-seeking and social media dependent teenager probably goes without saying, and, unfortunately, the consequences of doing so are high.
This past December, three young women were killed in an accident in Philadelphia that may have involved the Snapchat speed filter. Family members of the driver noted her fondness for Snapchat and claimed that she posted a snap using the speed filter minutes before her car collided with a commercial truck, which was filled with highly flammable chemicals.
Sadly, that accident is not unique – a string of collisions across the country have been connected with Snapchat use and with the app’s frightening speed filter.
In Georgia, a man is suing Snapchat after another speed filter related crash left him with permanent brain damage. In an alleged attempt to take a snap showing a speed of over 100 miles per hour, a teenage driver reached an even higher speed before she hit the plaintiff’s car last September – on a stretch of highway where the speed limit was only 55 miles per hour.
News stories in Georgia media outlets shared a disturbing image taken from inside an ambulance after the crash – a Snapchat selfie of the injured young driver.
The caption? “Lucky to be alive.”
Legal Implications – Snapchat Data as Evidence
The attorneys who are representing the victims of the crashes in Philadelphia and Georgia, as well as other lawyers across the country, are wisely attempting to collect digital evidence that the Snapchat speed filter contributed to their clients’ accidents.
The legal team representing the family of one of the young women killed in Philadelphia is subpoenaing a specific “snap” from Snapchat as part of the evidence discovery process.
Both the Philadelphia and the Georgia attorneys are arguing that the speed filter encourages drivers to speed, and that the app led the responsible drivers to accelerate dangerously prior to the respective accidents.
Unfortunately, that argument may be difficult to support, at least with evidence from
Snapchat’s databases. Just as Snapchat’s impermanent nature creates particular dangers for drivers, it also presents distinct challenges for attorneys.
According to Snapchat’s Law Enforcement Guide, which includes instructions for civil case proceedings, photos sent via the app are almost always impossible to retrieve after the fact, even for those within the Snapchat organization, as snaps are permanently removed from the company’s servers after they are opened. The exception occurs when a photo has not yet been opened by one of the intended recipients – these remain in the server for 30 days before they are also wiped.
What attorneys may be able to access instead is meta-data about snaps, including the time that a photo was sent. So while the law firm in Philly may not be able to view a snap that conclusively proves that a speed filter was used prior to the accident, attorneys might be able to confirm that some type of image was sent in the moments before the crash occurred.
With these limitations, meta-data might help to place blame on a driver for using a distracting electronic device on the road, but it probably wouldn’t go as far towards proving that Snapchat as a company is responsible for facilitating a crash. If a driver had sent a snap unrelated to their speed prior to an accident, in the eyes of a jury their actions would mostly likely be similar to texting and driving. Most of us would agree that logically, drivers text at their own risk – it is not very common for attorneys to go after Samsung or Verizon Wireless in a distracted driving case.
A warning that Snapchat users receive the first time they use the speed filter may also protect the company from lawsuits. “Please do not Snap and drive,” the message reads.
Still, there is no doubt that the speed filter is asking for trouble, and while they may face obstacles, surely capable attorneys will be able to hold the appropriate parties responsible when Snapchat is involved with a serious accident.
Along with the meta-data about the time that a snap was sent, attorneys may also be able to call upon testimony from Snapchat users who received a snap at the time of an accident to prove their case against the social media company. Further, some technology experts have even gone as far as to suggest that Snapchat is being less than forthright about the accessibility of supposedly deleted photos. If those claims prove to be true, Snapchat photos could become invaluable in a range of criminal and civil cases, including personal injury suits.
While drivers who use electronic devices absolutely need to be held responsible for their actions, it is equally important that there are consequences for companies that promote reckless, or in this case, life-threatening behavior. Especially when those companies know that their most loyal consumers are a group of people who tend to have an underdeveloped sense of cause and effect, who are inexperienced on the road, and who are prone to both recklessness and social media use: teenagers.
If you or a loved one were in a car accident in Delaware and you believe that Snapchat or another form of distracted driving was involved, please call us at 302-565-6100 or contact us today for a free consultation.