There was a chilling synchronicity last week between the results announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its first national teen poll on cellphone use while driving and the sentencing of 18-year-old Aaron Deveau, who just hours before became the first person sentenced to prison in Massachusetts for homicide by texting behind the wheel.
The results of the CDC survey – 58 percent of high school seniors and 43 percent of juniors polled admitted anonymously that they had texted or emailed while driving in the past month – met with a giant media yawn.
Unfortunately, so did Deveau's sentencing.
On Feb. 20, 2011, the then-17-year-old Deveau was texting while his car drifted across the center line on River Street in Haverhill, Mass., and collided head-on with a car driven by Daniel Bowley Jr. The 55-year-old New Hampshire resident and father of three had his girlfriend Luz Roman beside him. Bowley suffered massive injuries and lingered in a Boston hospital for 18 days before he died. Roman suffered a broken leg – and a "broken heart," she told the court.
District Court Judge Stephen Abany threw the book at Deveau, sentencing him to the maximum 2.5 years for motor vehicle homicide and 2 years for negligent operation of a motor vehicle while texting. Noting Deveau's youth and clean record, the judge then suspended the sentence, ordered him to serve one year in Essex County House of Corrections and yanked his driver's license for 15 years.
The teen was prosecuted under a 2010 Massachusetts state law that makes it a crime to injure someone during a car crash due to texting behind the wheel.
State Police spokesman David Procopio issued this statement objecting to Deveau's lenient sentence:
"We should never forget that his family will see him again, will talk to him, will mark holidays and milestones with him, but the victim's family will always have an empty seat at their table, a hole in their lives, and only memories of the person they loved. That's what distracted driving does," the statement said.
Reporters say some in the crowd of 50 gasped when the verdict was read. Was it because the prison sentence seemed too harsh? Or did the outcome seem too lenient? And how might this case have ended if Deveau had been convicted of, say, drunk driving rather than text driving?
The week left most of us wondering. We have a problem – indeed, a "national epidemic," according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood – that claims 3,000 lives every year. And yet for too many, especially teens, it just doesn't seem like a problem. Meanwhile, the auto insurance industry wonders whether our seeming ambivalence toward texting should warrant rate adjustments.
One thing is certain from this unsettling week: teens text and drive -- and kill.
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