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Texting-while-driving crashes rarely result in criminal charges

We have been writing this week about the minimal punishments drivers often face for causing accidents while breaking traffic laws. Failure to yield has become a misdemeanor offense in New York, thanks to Vision Zero. But other offenses, including accidents caused by texting and driving, rarely result in anything more than a fine.

In a recent New York Times guest column, former Times correspondent Anthony DePalma told the story of a distracted driving accident that killed his brother. His story highlights the difficulty of bringing criminal charges against negligent drivers who kill others while texting behind the wheel.

DePalma notes that his brother was out riding his motorcycle on a road in New Jersey when he was involved in a left-turn accident. The young woman who turned in front of his oncoming motorcycle did so quickly, with no signal and no brake lights.

These details were known because a police detective in an unmarked car happened to be driving behind the woman. The at-fault driver’s phone was confiscated, and it showed a series of banal text messages that were sent and received around the time of the crash.

She was not indicted by a grand jury, and prosecutors said that it would be very difficult to prove that the text messages were received/read/sent within a few seconds of the crash. It somehow didn’t matter that the woman had been texting for 90 minutes before the crash, including messages sent and received en route.

The young woman ultimately received a 90-day license suspension and a fine of $100, among other traffic citations.

Distracted driving “accidents” are only accidents in the narrowest definition of the term. In other words, they were not the intended outcome of the drivers who caused them. But with all we now know about the dangers of texting while driving, it is reasonable to expect that this behavior will almost inevitably lead to injurious and fatal crashes. So how can we, in good conscience, treat texting-while-driving crashes as unpredictable and unavoidable accidents?

It may be a long time before distracted driving is treated as seriously as drunk driving is by the criminal justice system. Thankfully, accident victims and their families can still pursue justice through personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits.

Source: The New York Times, “Did a Text Kill My Brother?” Anthony DePalma, Feb. 14, 2015

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