After following the coverage of Maryland's new cell phone law that went into affect this month and the upcoming trial of Elizabeth Meyers, a woman facing charges stemming from her alleged texting when her car struck and killed a man in Anne Arundel County, I am reminded of the struggles by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in the 1980s. Prior to advocacy work by MADD, drinking and driving was just how people got home, and it was considered normal behavior.
Liquor lobbies didn't even want the public to know that drunk driving was the leading cause of death for teenagers. When MADD tried to generate awareness of the issue among lawmakers and the general public, its members were at times dismissed and ridiculed. Yet now there seems to be a general consensus that driving under the influence is a bad idea and a crime with serious consequences.
A May 2013 study by the Cohen Children's Medical Center found that texting and driving is now responsible for more teen deaths than drinking and driving — and that doesn't even consider other cell phone related crashes and deaths. A 2009 Car & Driver study revealed that drivers had a slower reaction time to braking when reading a text while driving than when driving under the influence. Yet some of the readers' comments to The Sun's recent article about Ms. Meyers seem to indicate that many think there shouldn't be serious consequences for causing the death of another human being.
In The Sun's article on Ms. Meyers, Baltimore County Deputy State's Attorney John Cox made reference to three driving deaths that went to trial under Maryland's 2011 criminally negligent manslaughter statute. My son, Jake Owen, was one of them. His was the only one that involved cell phone use and the only one that did not result in a conviction under that statute. In his case, the driver was fined a mere $1,000 for taking the life of my five-year old son, causing a fractured femur in my (then) nine-year old daughter and shattering my husband's shoulder, not to mention the concussions, contusions and cracked ribs for every member of our family.
Jonathan Wesley Roberts, the victim in Ms. Meyers' case, was someone's father and someone's son. His death could've been prevented. Ms. Meyers' defense attorney claims that she was not texting at the time of the accident — contrary to a witness' report and her phone records. The attorney calls Mr. Roberts' death an "accident." My son's death was not an "accident," and it's time that we stop thinking that way about fatal crashes involving cell phones. If the drivers had not been using their cell phones to either talk or text, thousands of people, including my son, would be still alive.
During the trial in my son's case, the defense did not call a single witness, and the defendant invoked his Fifth Amendment rights not to incriminate himself. The defense attorney did not even dispute the facts and evidence put forth by the prosecution. Instead, the attorney submitted other case laws involving fatalities caused by cars, some statistics about the prevalence of cell phone use while driving, and the defendant's driving record. (He had only been driving for a year when the crash occurred, and he had no prior tickets). That was all that was needed to establish reasonable doubt under the current statute.
Instead of debate about this existing law and its application, we need a new law that treats serious crashes caused by distracted cell phone driving in a similar category as drunk driving. I agree that the penalties against use of a cell phone while driving are currently not much of a deterrent. Some may think a $75 ticket is worth it if they can conduct an urgent business call.
In addition to legislation, we as a society have to realize and accept that using your cell phone while driving is not a right (just as drunk driving is not a right), and that if you choose to do so, you are willfully committing an act that makes it dangerous for you and other people on the road. And a crash caused by such and act cannot be dismissed as an "accident," just as a crash caused by a drunk driver is now no longer considered an "accident."
Susan Yum is the mother of Alex, 11, and Jake, who would have turned 7 this year. She lives in South Baltimore. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.