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Driven to Distraction

As multitasking behind the wheel takes a growing toll, lawmakers are cracking down on texting while driving

By Matt Richtel in Logan, Utah

In most states, if somebody is texting behind the wheel and causes a crash that injures or kills someone, the penalty can be as light as a fine.

In Utah, things are much tougher.

After a crash that killed two men, the state passed the nation's toughest law to crack down on texting behind the wheel. Offenders now face up to 15 years in prison.

The new law penalizes a texting driver who causes a fatality as harshly as a drunk driver who causes a fatality: In the eyes of the law, a crash caused by a multitasking motorist is no longer considered an "accident," but an inherently reckless act.

"It's a willful act," says State Senator Lyle Hillyard. "If you choose to drink and drive or if you choose to text and drive, you're assuming the same risk."

The Utah law is part of a growing reaction around the country to multitasking behind the wheel.

Studies show that texting or talking on a cellphone while driving is at least as risky as driving with a .08 blood alcohol level, the standard for drunk driving. And a study at Harvard estimates that cellphone distractions cause at least 2,600 traffic deaths a year.

But there are unresolved legal issues with treating texting like drunk driving. While drunk drivers can be identified using a Breathalyzer, there's no immediate test for texting while driving. And if a police officer or prosecutor wants to confiscate a cellphone or see phone records, defense lawyers can raise questions about violations of privacy and constitutional objections based on the Fourth Amendment ban against "unreasonable searches and seizures."

In other states, existing reckless-driving laws can be used to penalize multitasking drivers who cause injury and death. But if prosecutors want to charge a texting driver with recklessness, they must prove the driver knew the risks beforehand.

Utah's new law, however, assumes that people understand the risks. The law "is very noteworthy," says Anne Teigen of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "They have raised the bar and said texting while driving is not just irresponsible, and it's not just a bad idea—it is negligent."

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving, and several Senators have introduced legislation in Congress to force all states to do the same. And last fall, President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting federal employees from texting while driving.

In Utah, the issue forced itself onto the agenda on Sept. 22, 2006. Reggie Shaw, then 19, was driving to work on a two-lane highway near Logan when he clipped an oncoming Saturn sedan. The Saturn spun across the highway and was struck by a pickup truck. James Furaro, 38, the driver of the Saturn, and his passenger, Keith O'Dell, 50, were killed instantly.

Negligent Homicide

Phone records showed that in the 30 minutes before the crash, Shaw and his girlfriend had texted each other 11 times. The last time was at 6:47 a.m., one minute before Shaw called 911. Investigators concluded that the last text was when he clipped the Saturn.

Shaw pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 200 hours of community service, and a requirement to read Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables to learn, like the character Jean Valjean—a former convict who tries to turn his life around—how to make a contribution to society.

Shaw's story prompted Utah legislators to crack down: A driver caught texting in Utah now faces up to three months in jail and up to a $750 fine, a misdemeanor. If they cause injury or death, the offense can grow to a felony with up to a $10,000 fine and 15 years in prison.

Alaska is the only other state with an equally tough approach: If a driver causes a fatal accident when a TV, video monitor, or computer is on and in the driver's field of vision, it's considered a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The same law applies to phones used for texting.

James Swink, a Utah prosecutor, says drivers in his state are now on notice that texting while driving is reckless. And as drivers across the country accept that, he says, judges and prosecutors will feel more comfortable with harsher penalties.

"Once the word is out there," he says, "it will become easier for judges to lower the big boom."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, January 18, 2010)