Some say state should toughen distracted driving laws
Unlike DUIs: Cell phones drivers who kill, get light punishment
Experts say driving while using a handheld cellphone -- whether talking, texting, browsing the Web or updating a Facebook page -- is more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol.
But in most states, including Connecticut, laws remain much harsher for alcohol-related accidents than those involving distracted driving. A fine and a suspended sentence are the most likely outcomes in a texting or driving while using a cellphone case talking involving a fatality.
His studies have shown that drivers are eight times more likely to get into an accident while distracted by a cellphone than those not distracted. Drivers under the influence of alcohol are only four times more likely to get into a crash than sober drivers.
"The person who was killed doesn't really care if you were texting or if you were drunk," Strayer said. "The odds of getting into a crash are substantially greater (when distracted by a phone), so the laws should be more strict.
"Prosecutors in a number of states are starting to act much more aggressive and rightly so."
More InformationDistracted driving statistics: Nearly 29,000 infractions were handed out in Connecticut last year for using a cell phone while driving. Three-fourths of drivers surveyed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association said they would be willing to answer their phones while behind the wheel. The Connecticut School Health Survey administered in 2011 to more than 6,000 high school and middle school students found 53 percent of those surveyed said they talked on a cell phone while driving at least once the month before. Eighteen percent of injury crashes in 2010 were reported as distraction-affected crashes, according to the NHTSA. Sending or receiving a text takes a driver's eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the time it would take, if driving 55 mph, to get the length of an entire football field, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
In Connecticut, causing a fatality while driving under the influence is a felony -- second-degree manslaughter -- while using a handheld cellphone and driving is likely to result in a charge of misdemeanor negligent homicide, legal experts said.
That is the charge New Canaan teen Brianna McEwan is facing after she allegedly struck and killed a jogger.
Another charge could apply -- felony misconduct with a motor vehicle -- but that charge has not been used in any case involving illegal cellphone usage by a driver who caused a fatality.
The McEwan case is not the first of its kind in Connecticut.
Michael Maddox, a 42-year-old Newtown man, was driving on Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport on April 4, 2011, talking on his cellphone, when police said he struck Cristina de Jara, a 74-year-old city woman. De Jara died the next day at Bridgeport Hospital as a result of severe head trauma.
Maddox, whose driver's license was suspended at the time of the crash, was sentenced to six months in prison on June 6, but will not spend any time behind bars because his sentence was suspended. He will serve two years probation instead after entering a no contest plea on a negligent homicide charge, admitting the state had enough evidence to gain a conviction, but not admitting guilt. That plea allows Maddox to deny the charges in any civil lawsuit brought against him. Neither Maddox nor his attorney could be reached for comment for this story.
Massachusetts has a much stricter approach to distracted driving fatality incidents.
In a landmark case in early June, a Massachusetts teenager became the first person in that state's history to be convicted of felony vehicular homicide for texting while driving.
Aaron Deveau, a Haverhill resident, was 17 when his car crossed the center line of a street in his hometown, crashing head-on into a car driven by a New Hampshire man, Donald Bowley Jr., 55. Bowley a father of three, died, and his girlfriend, Luz Roman, a passenger, suffered severe injuries.
Deveau was also among the first to be convicted of negligent operation while texting and will spend one year of a two-and-a-half year sentence in prison.
McEwan, 16, who is set to appear in court this week for the first time, faces charges that she was using her cellphone when she struck and killed Kenneth Dorsey in March.
Dorsey, a 44-year-old Norwalk man and Shelton High School graduate, was jogging along New Canaan Avenue when police said McEwan's Toyota 4Runner veered over the white line at the edge of the road and hit him.
Dorsey's father, Leo, called the apparent reason for his son's death "stupid," and said it could have been prevented through education.
McEwan, a three-sport athlete at New Canaan High School, faces a maximum of six months in prison if convicted. She is being tried as an adult.
NO SPECIFIC PRECEDENT
Unlike in Massachusetts, Connecticut does not have a law specifically dealing with fatal accidents caused by illegal cellphone usage.
State Rep. Lawrence Miller, a Republican who represents Stratford and Shelton, wants to make the penalty much tougher.
"It should be a felony with serious jail time," he said.
Miller proposed a bill in 2011 that would do just that, but it died in committee.
Miller said he hopes the accident in Norwalk will ignite more interest in the bill, which he said he will propose again in the next legislative session if he is re-elected.
Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara said he would support a bill that increases the penalty if there is enough evidence in a fatal accident to charge a driver with illegal use of a cellphone. He said the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association also supports increasing the penalties.
"This Norwalk incident most represents all that's tragic about distracted driving," MacNamara said. "This is the poster child case of distracted driving."
MacNamara said that while driving under the influence is differant than using a handheld cellphone, the results can be the same.
MacNamara's department handed out the third most distracted driving infractions in Connecticut last year, according to state statistics.
"It's a huge problem," MacNamara said. "Education is really what matters. There's a disconnect between people understanding the serious consequences of distracted driving, and this case in Norwalk really highlights it. People need to have a conversation with their kids and with each other, saying they will not use a cellphone and drive."
New Jersey legislators are also trying to crack down on those whose cellphone usage while driving results in a fatal accident.
Named the "Kulesh, Kubert and Bolis Law," after three distracted-driving victims, the legislation was passed by the state senate earlier this month, and is awaiting the signature of Gov. Chris Christie, according to a news release by the New Jersey Assembly Democrats.
The bill allows prosecutors to charge drivers who kill or injure someone with vehicular cellphone or assault by auto. It makes driving while illegally using the phone "reckless" instead of "careless" driving, a necessary change to allow for vehicular homicide, a felony, to be charged.
One of the bill's namesakes, Toni Donato-Bolis, was killed last year by a 21-year-old driver who police said was checking his cellphone for directions at the time of the crash, according to published reports. Donato-Bolis was nine months pregnant. Her unborn son also died. The driver was not charged.
Utah has one of the toughest laws in the country. Strayer said the Utah law treats driving while intoxicated with a .08 blood-alcohol level and driving while using a handheld cellphone the same. Penalties can be as harsh as 15 years in prison.
DIFFICULT TO TRACK
One issue facing lawmakers, police and prosecutors is that there is not much of a precedent in fatal accidents involving a driver using a cellphone in Connecticut.
There were 3,092 accidents in 2010 caused by drivers using cellphones in some way, according to The National Highway Transportation Safety Association, which recently refined the way it tracks accidents in which distracted driving was a factor.
"The problem is really difficult to keep track of, these cases are not logged carefully," Strayer said. "There's no solid bullet-proof numbers on numbers of people killed. It slows the legislative process."
Strayer said it can also be difficult for investigators to determine if a cellphone was used before a crash, especially in accidents where the driver is the only person involved. Unlike drinking and driving, which can easily be determined by a blood-alcohol test, there is not always a smoking gun in distracted-driving accidents. Cellphone records can be inaccurate or tough to access, and in single-car fatal accidents, a search of phone records isn't often done.
"Unless there is somehow a clear cut signature, such as being seen talking on the phone, or the phone is still in the person's hand, it can be really difficult," Strayer said.
Strayer said prosecutors could ask a jury-- if McEwan's case gets that far -- how risky the behavior she is accused of is.
"In cases like this, if the jury is asked `what if she was drunk instead of updating a Facebook page, texting or talking, what would you?' They would probably say `Get the person off the road,' " Strayer said. "If it is asked that way in this case, she could see the same kind of fate seen in Massachusetts."