Exclusive: Cars, phones 'the new DUI'?

Distracted driving at center of Lancaster case

jmonk@thestate.comJanuary 24, 2010 

A driver allegedly talking on a cell phone when she killed two bicyclists in Lancaster County has quietly agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit over one of the deaths, according to court documents.

And a jury trial in the death of the second bicyclist is to start this week in federal court in Columbia.

The case embodies the rising anxiety over people's use of cell phones and texting devices while driving.

And the stakes are high.

The driver, Sharon King, whose Chrysler Pacifica killed two bicyclists in October 2007, still has $55 million in insurance that can be paid for actual and punitive damages to the estate of dead bicyclist Thomas Hoskins, 49, of Columbia.

Last week, King, 36, pleaded guilty in Lancaster County to the criminal charge of reckless driving in the deaths of Hoskins and Lee Ann Barry, 43, of Waxhaw, N.C.

Barry and Hoskins were expert cyclists riding in a charity event to promote bicycle safety.

Barry's estate settled its civil suit in state court for $2.5 million. Now, what remains to be decided in both deaths is how much money a jury should award Hoskins' estate.

The trial is to start Wednesday - the same day the S.C. House of Representatives will hold a hearing on a bill that would ban both hand-held cell phone talking and texting by drivers.

Under that bill, talking or texting while driving would be a misdemeanor punished by a maximum $100 fine. Motorists could legally use a cell phone if they had a hands-free device.

"Our bill is on the fast track," said Transportation subcommittee chairman Rep. Don Smith, R-Aiken, the bill's chief sponsor. The bill also is sponsored by Rep. Phil Owens, R-Pickens, chairman of the committee overseeing Smith's subcommittee.

Increasingly, Smith said, constituents are asking when lawmakers will limit drivers' cell phone use.

Cell phone driving "is the new DUI," argued lawyer Dick Harpootlian in pretrial arguments in the bicycle case last week. He represents Hoskins' estate.

Across the country, other states are passing laws to restrict drivers' cell phone use. Businesses and governments limit cell phone use while driving.

Scientific evidence is mounting that talking or texting while driving can be a deadly distraction - far more so than talking to a live passenger in a car or even eating. Research shows cell phone use during driving uses the portions of the brain devoted to controlling visual, thinking and physical processes. All of that must compete with driving.

So far, 19 states have banned texting while driving. Six states and the District of Columbia require the use of hands-free devices if motorists talk on cell phones while driving.

"Texting while driving is definitely an idiotic thing," said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Administration.

No one knows how many people are killed each year by motorists distracted by cell phones, in part because many surviving motorists deny being on the cell phone, Harsha said.

Even businesses in the cell phone industry, such as Apple Computers, now warn people who buy cell phones that using them while driving is dangerous.

Already, some chiefs of South Carolina law agencies are speaking out.

Using a cell phone while driving is dangerous, said Mark Keel, director of the S.C. Department of Public Safety, which includes the Highway Patrol.

"I'm generally supportive of the General Assembly doing something to limit cell phone use for drivers," said Keel.

"I was going to Gaffney the other night," he said recently. "A young woman passed me going 80 mph. She had both hands up around her steering wheel while texting. I guess she was driving with her knees."

Some studies show drivers who text even have slower reaction times than drunken drivers, Keel said. "It's a problem."

Other studies show talking on a cell phone - whether handheld or wireless - is dangerous but less dangerous than texting.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said he supports a law to make texting while driving a violation.

"You take your eyes off the road when you text," Lott said.

About six years ago, Lott said, one of his deputies coming back from a Myrtle Beach training session reached for a cell phone while driving through Marion County, ran a stop light and killed a woman. Richland County's insurance carrier wound up paying about $600,000 to settle the case, Lott recalled.

"We were clearly at fault," Lott said, "and what you do when you're wrong is admit it and try to make things right from then on. So we started to institute procedures to restrict cell phone use. I hope the General Assembly can learn from what happened to us and do something before more people die. We know how serious this is."

Lott's department now bans personal cell phone use by deputies while driving and sharply limits official cell phone calls while driving.

More education is needed on just how dangerous a mix cell phones and driving is, he said.

Lexington County Sheriff James Metts said he hasn't read the proposed legislation but said he strongly supports the concept of banning texting and talking on hand-held cell phones while driving. Hands-free devices should be legal, he said.

Saying it's a shame government must enact a law to make people do what ought to be common sense, Metts said he has seen accidents in which drivers who were texting ran off the road into a ditch.

Multitasking is a major problem in today's world; people need to slow down and focus on driving, Metts said.

In next week's trial, Hoskins' lawyers will seek to convince a jury that using cell phones while driving is such a public threat that a large award is justified to send a message to the public and make an example of King.

Opposing lawyers will try to defuse that issue to keep damages as low as possible.

For example, King's lawyers said she will testify she had finished her cell phone conversation before hitting the cyclists.

In the pretrial arguments last week before U.S. Judge Joe Anderson, the attorneys said King was in fact distracted by two dogs in the car and adjusting the car radio - but not by her cell phone.

King's testimony will be disputed by other evidence, according to pretrial arguments and public court documents:

- The person to whom King was talking on the cell phone will testify that the call was interrupted by a crash.

- The accident happened on a four-lane road, on clear day, with great visibility and no other traffic around.

- The cyclists were well to the right side of the road, traveling legally in the same direction as the car traffic.

- King had been in another traffic accident in which the other motorist can testify King emerged from her car "clutching a cell phone."

In any event, with her criminal plea last week, it is undisputed that King was negligent. It also is undisputed that she was traveling the speed limit - 55 mph - when she hit the bicyclists.

And friends are prepared to testify that Hoskins and Barry were upstanding citizens and parents who left children behind.

Anderson said in open court last week the case highlights important matters.

"I've always wished the Legislature would pass a law limiting cell phone use in cars," Anderson told lawyers in a personal aside.

Just seeing photos of the dead bicyclists has made him sharply decrease his cell phone usage while driving, Anderson said.

King lawyer Edward Laney told Anderson that South Carolina has no law banning cell phone use by motorists and that many people talk on cell phones while driving, even the dead bicyclists' biking colleagues.

Anderson himself, after all, admitted to driving while talking.

King's talking on a cell phone was not unusual and shouldn't be cause for a big jury award, Laney said. "She was doing what everybody else in the world does," he said.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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