When Texting Kills, Britain Offers Path to Prison
New York Times, ELISABETH ROSENTHAL, November 2, 2009
OXFORD, England — Inside the imposing British Crown Court here, Phillipa Curtis, 22, and her parents cried as she was remanded for 21 months to a high-security women’s prison, for killing someone much like herself. The victim was Victoria McBryde, an up-and-coming university-trained fashion designer.
Ms. Curtis had plowed her Peugeot into the rear end of Ms. McBryde’s neon yellow Fiat, which had broken down on the A40 Motorway, killing Ms. McBryde, 24, instantly.
The crash might once have been written off as a tragic accident. Ms. Curtis’s alcohol level was zero. But her phone, which had flown onto the road and was handed to the police by a witness, told a story that — under new British sentencing guidelines — would send its owner to jail.
With that as evidence, Ms. Curtis was sentenced in February under 2008 British government directives that regard prolonged texting as a serious aggravating factor in “death by dangerous drivi
ng” — just like drinking — and generally recommend four to seven years in prison.
The case reveals the tensions that arise when law enforcement and the courts begin to crack down on a dangerous habit that has become widespread and socially acceptable. Is texting while driving bad judgment, or a heinous crime? And what is the appropriate punishment?
Although most European countries and a minority of American states now ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, Britain has become one of the more aggressive countries in attacking the problem, according to Ellen Townsend, policy director for the European Transit Safety Council, which advises the European Commission. Britain’s new guidelines state that using a hand-held phone when causing a death will “always make the offense more serious” in terms of punishment and lead to prison time
. Texting is given special treatment.
Ms. Curtis was found guilty and sent to prison even though she was not texting at the time of the accident, because the new guidelines regard “reading or composing text messages over a period of time” as “a gross avoidable distraction.”
Its effect, British judges have ruled, may go beyond the moment of composing a message. Such behavior is categorized the same as driving while drunk or high on drugs, as well as racing another driver.
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