The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)

Via Biking Bis, credit the judge for not simply shrugging off another “accident” on the roads:

The text-messaging motorist who struck and killed his former high school teacher told the court: “This was not intentional. It was an accident. I’m so sorry.”

Clark County (Vancouver, Washington) Superior Court Judge Roger Bennett didn’t buy it.

“I’ve heard the term ‘accident’ used quite a bit today. But this was no accident.”

He then sentenced Antonio Cellestine, 18, to five years in prison after he pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and felony hit and run.

(Thanks Brian)

This entry was posted on Monday, January 25th, 2010 at 8:37 am and is filed under Traffic safety. 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.

18 Responses to “The Accidental Journalist (an occasional series chronicling how predictable, preventable crashes are turned into accidents)”

  1. David Moulton Says:

    I’m generally uncomfortable with the hijacking of language for the purpose of demonization. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, an accident is “an unexpected undesirable event,” “an unforeseen incident,” “lack of intention; chance.” Seems to me that the crash described probably fits this definition, as well as the definition of a crash (the two are NOT mutually exclusive). I have no opinion about whether or not the judge was right to convict, or whether the sentence is appropriate. I do have an opinion about the judge’s apparent lack of literacy.

  2. Donald Hayward Says:


    From which concerns the legal definition of “accident”, here’s four definitions of it and which ones this circumstance fits:

    1. An unintended, unforeseen, and undesirable event, especially one that causes harm, injury, damage, or loss.
    —Perhaps, although unintended and unforseen don’t really fit… text messaging while driving is essentially willful negligence which can easily be forseen. It’s obvious that someone who is text messaging is impaired.

    2. An unintended and unexpected event, especially one that is undesirable or harmful, that does not occur in the usual course of events under the circumstances in which it occurred, or that would not be reasonably anticipated.
    —Absolutely not. Fatal accidents happen often under the circumstances of impaired driving, and that texting while driving could end up with someone dead is reasonably anticipated (look at all the news stories in which it happens).

    3. In equity, an unexpected and injurious event not caused by misconduct, mistake, or negligence.
    —No, this is an event that *is* caused by misconduct, mistake, and negligence.

    4. In many automobile insurance policies, any unintentional event including those caused by misconduct, mistake, or negligence.
    —Yes, this definition fits.

    So to summarize, from an insurance policy perspective, you’re right. This would be considered an accident. From the other legal perspectives, this would be better classified as negligence than an accident.

  3. Eileen Says:

    Even assuming Mr. Cellestine didn’t intentionally hit his teacher, and that he was just so oblivious to the easily-predictable consequences of his continued driving while texting that he didn’t know what he was doing or had done, the outcome was not “unexpected,” “unforeseen” or up to “chance.”

  4. fred_dot_u Says:

    In the aviation world, there is a saying regarding landing an aircraft equipped with retractable landing gear. It refers to pilots who have landed without extending the gear. “There are those who have, and those who will.”

    I think if a driver is texting while driving, the above statement could be easily applied, only in regards to experiencing a crash/collision, but I won’t call it an accident.

  5. Paul Souders Says:

    I live in Oregon where this case has been on the news a little (this happened in Clark County, part of the Portland Metro area).

    With all due respect to Dave Moulton, there’s a lot about this “accident” that was eminently foreseeable. Like Mr. Cellestine driving with a suspended license. And driving without insurance. And he had two previous convictions for driving without a license. And surely his license was suspended twice for reasons of some sort (I don’t know what) — in Washington that pretty much means repeated convictions for reckless driving, or Minor in Possession, or drug offenses. And consider that he was only 18 years old, so he had only two years in which to generate this sparkling record.

    The state plea-bargained this sentence so it won’t count as the first of his “three strikes.” Which means, among other things, he’ll be eligible for an early release in 2 years. At which time he’ll likely be able to retake his driver’s test and get a driver’s license again.

    As a fun parenthesis, consider Cellestine’s girlfriend — a wonderful piece of work in herself — who held a carwash fundraiser for the victim’s family but used the money to (try to) post bail for Mr. Cellestine.

    But there are more people culpable in this instance than Mr. Cellestine. This was not an “accident” on his part, because he knew the dangers of driving while severely distracted. And it was not an “accident” on the part of the State of Washington, who damn well knew he was a menace but failed to keep him off the road, and will fail to do so again in 2-5 years. So not only was Mr. Cellestine’s “accident” completely foreseeable, I’ll go one better and foresee his next potentially fatal “accident”, unless Washingtonians get their crap together, pass some tough laws and tighten up their licensing requirements.

  6. Josh R Says:

    The three keywords in the definition of “accident” posted by David are “Unexpected” “Unforeseeable” and “Chance.” All of these words imply that the driver in question had no control over what happened. The car just went out of control and hit a pedestrian, the tree just jumped in front of them, etc. In reality every crash that doesn’t involve a catastrophic mechanical failure or a part (like a tire) failing before it should is preventable. Everybody wants to blame something besides the nut behind the wheel, and failing that they just want to shrug and say “accidents happen.” It’s bullshit and it’s getting people killed and it needs to stop.

  7. John Says:

    Mr. Souders, regarding your blog– I direct my attention to the iceberg:

    Furthermore, I think that, in order to solve the tragedy of fatal accidents, the media should give more space to solutions and good driving. I have no doubt that, if I was that high school teacher (and I am one) and a former student of mine tried to hit me with an “accident”, he could not. All the above comments that state this was intentional are good, in the right direction, but fail to take the next step that psychology now considers– the choice of person. He knew the victim and probably knew the car.

    In my blog, Best Driver In The World, the entry that most closely offers a solution to preventing these kinds of tragedies is

    which reasons out how we should be able to “tell on each other” as citizen reporters.

    Any writing glorifying or being sarcastic about bad driving should be avoided. The Emperor has no clothes, if you know what I mean.

    Rest in peace colleague.


  8. Steve Says:

    Latin accidere (ad + cadere: to fall to; analogous to English “it befell him that…). It certainly befell the teacher to die (i.e., that lot could have fallen to anyone in the vicinity). However, Cellestine’s new status as a convict is no accident. He made his own fate.

  9. John Says:

    And I have to amend my comment, not realizing that the victim was on a bicycle– all the more reason to never let Cellestine drive again. A bicyclist, by nature of position and speed, is the most vulnerable of road users– much harder to avoid intention of this sort. Rest in peace.

  10. David Moulton Says:

    Thanks for all the thoughts! I’m going to stick by my guns here. An event can be both an accident and negligent. An event can be both an accident and a crime. An event can be both an accident and a crash. What I’m objecting to is the process of demonization and blaming that goes on by the refusal to accept that a criminal, negligent crash may also be unintentional. We love to blame and demonize, and it is not to our credit that we do so.

  11. Josh R Says:

    David, ceasing to use the word “accident” has nothing to do with demonizing people and everything to do with changing how our society treats car crashes and driving safety. Nobody actually thinks that a driver who gets into a crash while distracted by their cell phone intended to get into a crash, after all everyone is just trying to get where they’re going, and crashing into another car or running over a biker stops your effort to get somewhere pretty decisively. The problem is not “loving to blame and demonize” it’s failing to internalize the fact that many of the things that people do while driving are dangerous and distracting, and that those behaviors cause crashes and ruin lives. This isn’t about one guy, it’s about everybody and the need to analyze your own driving habits.

  12. Paul Souders Says:

    It’s interesting that one seldom hears the phrase “airplane accident.”

    People believe that when a plane crashes, someone is culpable — designers, flight crew, maintenance crew, traffic controllers, weather monitoring systems, terrorists, terrorist-minded security personnel, etc. This attitude — “there are no ‘plane accidents'” — has led to a situation where the most potentially dangerous form of transportation is actually the safest.

    But somehow car crashes “just happen.” “It was an accident.” Y’know, just like knocking over a glass of milk.

    Everything about Mr. Cellestine suggested he was a menace and incapable of safely driving a car, thus his suspended license. Simply getting behind the wheel that night was an intentionally hazardous act. That he no longer had a valid driver’s license was his signal not to drive, yet he disregarded it. Even by Mr. Moulton’s conservative definition of “accident” this was no accident.

    I see Mr. Moulton’s point here — Mr. Cellestine had no intention of murdering anyone. But he committed the legal equivalent of pointing a gun in the air and pulling the trigger. This was Judge Bennett’s whole point. That bullet was gonna land somewhere, and it had the bad fortune of landing on a nice guy like Mr. Patterson.

  13. Brent Says:

    “It’s interesting that one seldom hears the phrase ‘airplane accident.'”

    The FAA makes sure of this. Aviation crash reports almost always report “pilot error” as the cause, most commonly due to running out of fuel or flying into bad weather. We might just as well fault drivers for their bad choices to drive in conditions that lead to road icing or into fog.

  14. fred_dot_u Says:

    some time ago, in southwest florida, fires generating smoke combined with weather conditions resulted in zero visibility on a segement of interstate highway. After a long investigation, highway patrol troopers cited drivers involved in a huge crash, for various reasons, mostly to do with operating in reduced visibility. There was reported in the media an outcry, that the crashes were caused by the forest service!

  15. Bob Bigboote Says:

    “It’s interesting that one seldom hears the phrase “airplane accident.” ”

    It’s no different in the nuclear power industry, where “accident” is not prefered terminology.

    “Human performance error” is used instead.

  16. njkayaker Says:

    David Moulton Says “An event can be both an accident and negligent. An event can be both an accident and a crime. An event can be both an accident and a crash. What I’m objecting to is the process of demonization and blaming that goes on by the refusal to accept that a criminal, negligent crash may also be unintentional.”

    I think you are arguing against a point that no one is making. No one is suggesting that the intent was to kill somebody.

    The problem with the term “accident” is that it has a general connotation of something that can’t be avoided. Tom Vanderbilt prefers the term “collision”.

    There are basically three ways to classify a collision:

    1) An accident, something that can’t reasonably be anticipated. Example: a tree falling and causing a driver to veer into another vehicle.

    2) A collision that is the result of negligence. While the particular collision might not have been anticipated, drivers are required to take care that bad things (whatever they might be) don’t happen. Texting while driving is a clear failure to take the required care. This isn’t an “accident” because one can anticipate that something bad is likely to happen. A driver is required to avoid running over people and is also required to avoid situations where it is reasonable to assume somebody might get run over.

    Example: the particular homicide being discussed here.

    3) A collision that is intended. That is, if somebody plans to run into somebody, the intent to do so elevates the severity of the crime (eg. from homicide to murder).

  17. Julia Says:

    I have nothing further to add to the discussion, but just wanted to commend the fantastically high level of intelligent discourse to be found in the comment sections of this blog.

    It’s wonderfully refreshing!

    Keep it up everyone.

  18. gpsman Says:

    For a collision to be declared an accident the motorist must be applying due diligence, which texting while driving obviously is not.

    Who might buy the defense, “I was just driving down the road reading the newspaper and accidentally ran into and killed your mom”?

    But, I am familiar with a group of guys who essentially believe it is impossible under any conditions for a driver to be at fault for a crash, unless they’re old, or operating below or not far enough in excess of the speed limit.

    If a speeding driver should collide with the slower driver, it’s the fault of the slower driver for being in the way.

    Yeah, they’re idiots, but they are under near constant bombardment by news reports of crashes “caused” by fog and ice containing multiple statements from officials asserting exactly that.

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