Killer Texts: Car Accidents and Distracted Driving
Officer Pete Reilly, formerly of Massapequa, Long Island, thought nothing could surprise him. “I’ve seen it all, believe me. We had a crash in Riverhead, where I had a 15-year-old kid blow a 2.4 on the Breathalyser,” he says.
A Breathalyzer can detect the percentage of alcohol in your blood. But nobody has invented a contraption yet to calibrate how much texting kids do while driving.
“We had an accident on Merrick Road where the airbag knocked out a 19-year-old boy. I found him unconscious behind the wheel with a cell phone in his hand. It threw me for a loop, the way he gripped the phone,” says Reilly. “In the ER, the young man said his last text was from his girlfriend, saying, ‘No TWD’ — teen slang for texting while driving.”
In 2007, a young driver texting while behind the wheel crashed and killed Danny Oates, a 14-year-old bicyclist. In May 2009, Aiden Quinn, 24, was text-messaging his girlfriend while driving a train in Boston. When he crashed the train, he cost the city of Boston $9.6 million and injured 46 people.
But TWD hardly seems malicious. There’s a stigma to a DWI, but TWD? It’s rampant, and no one goes to jail for it.
TWD is not, however, a victimless crime. District attorneys say it’s hard to prosecute, though, because the evidence can be deleted. Besides, unlike driving while drunk, TWD itself has not been criminalized. Still, the kind of distraction it causes can result in death, and perpetrators could potentially face charges of vehicular manslaughter.
“We routinely have phone records subpoenaed. Our reports list the time and date of texts sent and received,” says Victoria Marconi, a Verizon Wireless service representative. If a driver sent a text at the time he crashed, it’s traceable, even if he deletes it, but it’s difficult to prove that a driver read a text at the moment he crashed, no matter when it was received.
“I’m hearing of more cases involving cell phone use behind the wheel,” says Daniel R. Rosen, a car accident attorney in Denver. A Harvard University study estimates that cell phone use behind the wheel causes 2,600 traffic fatalities a year, The New York Times reports. Research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that 12% of drivers are using their cell phones. The Harvard study concludes that, every year, cell phone distractions cause 570K auto accidents that lead to injuries.
American culture has responded in kind. A recent poll conducted by The New York Times and CBS News found that fifty per cent of Americans think texting while driving should warrant at least as stringent a punishment as driving drunk.