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15 Years, 30 Days

I was intrigued by two recent news items.

One, from Utah:

Calling texting while driving a crime, a judge Tuesday ordered a Tremonton man to spend 30 days in the Cache County jail as part of his sentence for two counts of negligent homicide.

Reggie Shaw was 19 when his Chevy Tahoe veered into oncoming traffic on State Road 30 near Logan, causing the deaths of Cache Valley residents Jim Furfaro, 38, of Logan and Keith O’Dell, 50, of North Logan.

Though Shaw told Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Bart Rindlisbacher at the scene on Sept. 22, 2006, that he had not been texting, subpoenaed cell phone records show Shaw and a friend exchanged 11 text messages in the moments before the accident, according to Cache County Prosecutor Don Linton.

[as an aside, note the passive tense here, rather common in newspaper reporting: it was his Tahoe 'that veered,' deaths 'were caused.' Not, 'he swerved, killing the two drivers.']

Another, via the Washington Post:

A Woodbridge man who drove the wrong way, drunk, on Route 1 last year and slammed head-on into another car at 96 mph, killing the driver, was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday by a Fairfax County judge.

[less passive tense here...]

We have here two cases of driving in the presence of activities shown to cause impairment. In both cases, people died. Yet the sentencing gulf between the two cases is huge. One obvious difference is that texting while driving has yet to be made an actual crime (though I predict it increasingly will be), and I imagine this must influence the sentencing; I am not sure what the usual sentence is for “negligent homicide” — but then again, isn’t a DUI-caused fatality also a “negligent homicide”? How would we feel about a 30-day sentence with some community service for a drunk driver who killed two people? Perhaps the ages of both perpetrators also came into play. But one has to wonder about the major discrepancy in sentencing.

Thoughts?

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This entry was posted on Thursday, March 12th, 2009 at 7:05 am and is filed under Traffic Enforcement, Traffic Laws. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “15 Years, 30 Days”

  1. Abhishek Says:

    A bicyclist was rear ended and killed by a motorist on a busy road in Jacksonville Fl. The cyclist was wearing dark clothes and did not have any lights on his bike. The motorist did not receive any punishment. It was deemed as the cyclists fault. Talk about disparities in law.

  2. Peter Says:

    california has already banned texting while driving, but we have no 3-foot passing law yet.

    the passive voice is something that the existing media establishment (hopefully on the way out!) is very good about using. if any young, new reporter slips up and actually says something useful, a highly-paid editor will step in to correct it. the strongest examples for the passive voice that i can think of are all the US invasions of foreign countries where our troops always manage to end up somehow. the papers are never sure who invaded who, or why — all we know is that our troops were eventually withdrawn from some place, like Vladivostok, after we did a bunch of good stuff, presumably. we’re not let known how they got there — only that they were withdrawn. we never invaded Vietnam, we just sent a few advisers.

    but it’s not just the passive voice that is used — where things just somehow happen, there are never actors in charge of making things happen deliberately (like drivers driving and then texting) — there are plenty of ways to dilute the force of the crimes, to make the drivers appear more sympathetic (crowded highways, rush-hour traffic, scary intersections, etc.). for instance, our escalation in Iraq, we’re told, is actually just ‘a surge’ — ditto our new escalation policy in Afghanistan.

    all of this excuse-making writing can and should be challenged, of course, and many bikers have done it. some folks have coined the term ‘carhead’ in reference to how police reports are written, how newspapers cover car-runs-over-biker incidents, etc.

    so, we need:

    1) to get more people on bikes. when more police officers on bikes are mowed down, it’ll help stop regular people from getting mowed down, too. when politicians get terrorized by drivers, they’ll be less likely to write-off the fact that the rest of us are getting terrorized as well.

    2) the laws for at least formal protection. they may not even be huge fines, but they’re still super-important imo. my buddy got a ticket for talking on his phone while driving the other day in SF — he deserved it, and now he’ll think twice before doing that routine. he’s a bad enough driver even without doing the cell phone routine.

    3) to continue to demand accurate coverage in the media, supplementing and replacing it and setting good examples when we can (Streetsblog.com)

    3) keep pushing for media reform — e.g. new citizen subscription models instead of advertising handouts from Big Auto to newspapers should help get better coverage.

  3. Christopher Monnier Says:

    I think some of it has to do with the perceived morality of the two behaviors. Take the driving part out of the equation and think of how the two behaviors are viewed from a moral perspective. Being drunk is regarded as somewhat amoral, whereas texting is at worst seen as somewhat annoying, but definitely not amoral.

  4. Fritz Says:

    My rant today happened to be on a reporter describing cycling as a dangerous activity as he reports on a bike vs car collision this morning in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    In 2006, texting teen Patrick killed cyclist Jim Price outside of Boulder, Colorado. Sims got 10 days. That same year, Jennifer Stark was downloading a ringtone when she struck cyclist Matt Wilhelm outside of Urbana Illinois — Starck was fined $1000 for “improper lane change” and ordered to attend a traffic safety school.

    This trend of defining every little possible impairment as a crime is ridiculous. If you’re impaired or inattentive and kill or maim somebody, the local attorney should be able to charge you with a crime.

  5. Michael O'Brien Says:

    Prosecutors in Oregon would tell you that we already have laws that punish the consequences of texting:

    1. Careless driving (if it “endangers or is likely to endanger persons or property”), a minor violation subject to a fine of up to $750 if there’s a collision;

    2. Reckless driving (up to 1 year in jail, $6,250 fine);

    3. Criminally negligent homicide (5 years/$125 K);

    4. Manslaughter I (20 years/$357,000)

    The prosecutor’s charging decision is made within the context of the prevailing automobile culture. The issues, for the prosecutor, are: “How will a jury respond to the facts of the case?” and “how foreseeable was the harm to the victim?” To most prosecutors, it’s more foreseeable that someone will be killed by a drunk driver than by a texting teenager. I question whether there’s an empirical basis for that distinction, but it affects the charging decision and the likelihood of a conviction.

    Teens in Oregon are already prohibited from texting or using cellphones while driving, but it’s a very minor violation. Victims can seek restitution, for what it’s worth, for all the charges listed above.

    In a rational world, texting while driving would be prosecuted under the reckless statute even if there was no collision.

  6. Nick Says:

    How does a reporter spend his days? Driving to meet sources and attend events, and talking on the phone. Is it any wonder that they might not be objective when it comes to cell phone use while driving?

  7. Brian Hobbs Says:

    The question is why did the judge only impose a sentence of 30 days when negligent homicide can carry a sentence of 5 – 20 years? How about some follow up from the media. was the victims family there for sentencing? Also what about civil penalties? Was the driver sued in civil court like OJ was?

    Brian

  8. Michael O'Brien Says:

    Brian Hobbs: “Also what about civil penalties? Was the driver sued in civil court like OJ was?”

    It’s probably safe to assume that the victim’s family was entitled to court-ordered restitution (civil penalties), but it’s notoriously difficult to collect. I recently read that only 3% of all restitution awards in the U.S. are ever paid. It’s not clear from the article whether restitution was ordered by the court.

    Lawsuits are a better option, assuming the kid was insured, and it’s extremely likely that the victims’ families pursued them. But a lot of drivers carry very low liability limits (like $50,000), so the money available to victims of a catastrophic collision (or their families) is rarely enough. If a lifetime of medical care is required, it’s almost never enough.

    For these reasons, most drivers should consider raising their own coverage for collisions with “uninsured/underinsured” motorists, along with their PIP (medical) coverage. It’s relatively cheap (and no, I’m not an insurance agent).

    Finally, it’s obvious to me, despite the serious nature of the charge, that the prosecutor and judge considered the driver’s behavior to be little more than “simple” negligence — the routine variety that will “foreseeably” lead to collisions. It it’s a crime (as the judge said) that cost two lives, that’s how it should’ve been treated.

  9. Marc Says:

    I think just 30 days for the texting driver is too short – but I also think it’s a stretch to say these two crimes are equal.

    Texting while driving CAN be dangerous. I don’t know whether it will cause an accident 3 times out of 10, or 5, or 7 times out of 10 – but it won’t ALWAYS cause an accident. And if texting does cause an accident it won’t necessarily be serious. Heck, I would point out that this jackass managed to send 10 text messages without crashing before the 11th one proved his undoing.

    Driving drunk 100 mph the wrong way down a major highway, however, WILL, with near absolute certainty, cause an accident, and that accident will almost certainly be serious or fatal.

    Also: I didn’t see how old the drunk driver was, however the texting driver was a 19-year-old kid.

    Something this blog would do good to address would be corporate policies that encourage, or discourage, their employees to be glued to their phones/Blackberries 24/7. All the senior managers at my company get Blackberry-like devices. Which is good – but then to keep up with the steady drumbeat of emails requiring immediate attention, they all feel substantial pressure to constantly check them and even answer emails while driving. I’ve been in the car when my boss checks his email – it’s friggin’ scary. I’m sure other firms are even worse, and they actively encourage their employees to do this sort of thing.

    But, I’ve also heard of at least one firm that has a strict corporate policy of no phone calls while driving. I wonder if it’ll take a class action lawsuit against some major firm whose drivers have caused a lot of accidents to convince other firms to take this action? I’d love to see an economist compare the lost productivity of no phone calls/emails while driving vs. the reduced health care/life insurance/liability costs because their employees are causing fewer accidents.

  10. Justus Says:

    The teen also drove the wrong way down a highway. He also didn’t admit to wrongdoing and refused to show any sympathy for the people who murdered or offer condolences to the bereaved family.

    The drunk driver was 31. He didn’t “drive the wrong way down a major highway”. He lost control of his car, which crossed over the median and struck another car.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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