Recently, we here at Abnormal Use wrote about a new lawsuit which seeks to hold Snapchat liable for a high speed motor vehicle accident that allegedly occurred as a result of the at-fault motorist’s use of the social media application. Thereafter, we decided to take a more hands-on approach to our work and signed up for the Snapchat. After a week of fiddling with the application, we have a much greater understanding of Snapchat and, thus, a better insight on the lawsuit. Hoping to help our readers who are strangers to Snapchat, we thought we would provide you with out observations and how they relate to the suit’s allegations.
As an initial matter, Snapchat is much different that any other social media app that we have ever used. While we admittedly don’t understand its purpose (perhaps due to our age or our familiarity with much different social media platforms), Snapchat is extremely easy to use. Users can create and post a “snap” with nothing more than the push of a button. When a user opens the Snapchat application, it opens immediately to the camera screen. A quick press of the camera button takes a snap photo. A longer press records a snap video. The user can then dress up the snap with emojis or filters (we will discuss this more later); however, it is not required. The snaps are then saved to the users “story” (which stays live for 24 hours) or sent directly to other users (which are available for 10 seconds after they are viewed). Unknown purpose aside, Snapchat cannot be any simpler.
Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, require much deeper cognitive processing and interaction from the user. Even though users can (and often do) use the applications to post pictures or videos, Twitter and Facebook typically require the user to think of and type out a sentence or two expressing a thought. Twitter and Facebook require body movements analogous to sending a text message. From a mechanical standpoint, Snapchat and Twitter/Facebook are worlds apart.
What gives Snapchat its character is the ability to alter each photo. Where Instagram focuses primarily on preset filters and borders, Snapchat gives users more personal control over the editing process. At the touch of a button, users can add text, emojis, or drawings. Users also have access to a number of Snapchat filters which can add a somewhat bizarre twist to their photos (i.e. rainbows flowing from mouths, fire emanating from heads, etc.). The ease of use of each alteration is as simple as creating the photo or video in the first place.
The controversy in the Snapchat lawsuit centers around a Snapchat feature we refer to as the “speed filter.” The speed filter utilizes a phone’s GPS system to calculate the speed a user is moving at the time the snap is created. The speed reading is added to the photo/video from the editing screen with a simple swipe to the left. Like the other editing features mentioned above, the speed filter is available as an option only after the photograph or video has been captured.
Being dedicated to our jobs, we put the speed filter to the test. (Not behind the wheel of a car, of course). As a PASSENGER in the front seat of a car and again on the rear of a jet ski, we found the speed function to be fairly accurate, typically measuring speeds within 2-3 mph of that posted on the vehicle’s speedometer. However, the speed filter routinely registered 1-2 mph of speed when sitting still as if it was trying to compensate for the earth’s rotation. Nonetheless, its ease of use was as seamless as the other Snapchat features.
The most important component of our findings and perhaps the most relevant to the lawsuit is that we have yet to find any component of Snapchat that encourages users not to exercise sound judgment. Admittedly, we found no warnings apparent within the application notifying users not to use the speed filter while operating a motor vehicle. Last we checked, there are also no such warnings about plenty of other things which can distract drivers like changing radio stations, applying make-up, or reading the newspaper. We expect motorists to know better when getting behind the wheel of a car. The plaintiff in the lawsuit contends that Snapchat encourages such behavior by awarding users with Snapchat trophies for using the speed filter. It is true that Snapchat has a trophy system to signal various milestones and use of certain features. However, nowhere does Snapchat award a “Using the Speed Filter While Driving” trophy. The speed filter has a completely valid purpose for those traveling on a bike, a horse, a plane, or as passengers in car. We found nothing within Snapchat that encourages users to use the filter while driving or otherwise serve as a substitute for sound judgment.
When you understand what the speed filter actually is and how it operates, it becomes apparent that there is no difference between Snapchat and anything else that conceivably distract a driver. Now that we can appreciate Snapchat, our initial concerns about the lawsuit resurface. Holding Snapchat liable in this lawsuit opens the door to a whole host of distracted driving lawsuits. Twitter, Facebook, service providers, and cell phone companies all stand in the shoes of Snapchat as potential targets. Taking the argument to its extremes could even lead to suits against any product manufacturer whose product was negligently being used by a distracted driver. The reason these suits are traditionally atypical is that fault lies with the distracted driver. By any negligence standard, the reasonable person knows better than to use a cell phone or application while driving. The true tortfeasor is easily identifiable. No filters necessary.