General Question

Zuma's avatar

Do you think it poses an unsafe risk to eat fast food, use a map light to consult a map, or use a visor mirror while driving?

Asked by Zuma (5908points) April 21st, 2009

Recently a 49-year-old California woman was sentenced to 6 years in prison because she was texting while driving, missed a sign warning of roadwork ahead, and plowed into some stopped traffic killing a woman. This was in August of 2007, a year before the first UK laboratory study showing slowed reaction times due to texting, and a year and a half before there was any law against it.

It turns out that about 20% of drivers on the road text and drive, resulting in about 2,000 deaths annually, out of 38,000 total. That works out to odds of a fatal mishap on any given text message of about 1 in 14.3 million, or about the same as winning the California lottery.

I am having an argument with some folks in another forum and I need a reality check to get a sense of what other people think about taking very small but avoidable risks. My position is that this woman, given what she knew at the time, had no reason to suppose that she would cause anyone any harm. The position of the other folks comes down to a common sense dictum that ANY attention diverted away from the task of driving is unsafe, and she deserves to be punished to the max for taking that risk (even though current law only punishes texting while driving with a $25 fine).

In my view, as regrettable as the mishap was, the woman was no more careless than anyone who eats fast food, uses a map light, changes CDs, attends to a fussy child, or any other thing like that.

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44 Answers

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

Would she have killed the victim were she not texting and paying attention to the task of driving?

Yes those other activities pose just as much of a risk.

Bluefreedom's avatar

I believe every one of those activities in your question and its details are great examples of what not to do while you are driving. And here are some more:

Reading
Applying make-up
Passenger distractions
Talking on a cell phone
Engaging in ‘Road Rage’ incidents

Whenever your attention is diverted from concentrating on the task of driving, even for a short time, it is careless and irresponsible and poses unecessary risks and dangers to yourself and others.

BBSDTfamily's avatar

I think doing any of the above things you mentioned are irresponsible while driving. Maybe the woman couldn’t have known the results of the survey because it wasn’t yet conducted, but common sense tells you that if you are doing anything else then you aren’t paying full attention to the road.

augustlan's avatar

They are all very distracting behaviors, but the only ones that have been made illegal are ones having to do with cell phones. I personally don’t think there should be laws applying only to cell phone/texting use, but that a ‘negligent driving’ law should cover any and all instances when such things cause an accident.

asmonet's avatar

Texting, and mirror checking, as well as map checking are ridiculous.
Buy a GPS they’re cheap as hell now.

As for fast food, it’s finger food and generally doesn’t take your eyes off the road, I don’t think it’s in the same league. I don’t like it, but I’ve done it.

YARNLADY's avatar

@augustlan Maybe more of the behaviors are illegal, but just not in the news as much. I can’t imagine that there isn’t a law against not paying attention to your driving.

augustlan's avatar

@YARNLADY Negligent driving is illegal, I’m just saying I don’t think we need to single out cell phones for extra laws.

cak's avatar

Yes, they are all distracting and all dangerous.

@asmonet – the reason why I include fast food is simple. There are people that can’t seem to handle the food, or they are dipping their nuggets, french fries or whatever they are eating and could look away. Plus the fact that while I am starving, sitting in the car next to the driver stuffing their face…I’m jealous!

Oh…and one should probably not try to crochet while they are driving. Yes…I saw someone crocheting.

Zuma's avatar

No doubt, common sense holds that any attention diverted from the task of driving is less safe, but is it unsafe? At what point does distraction become negligence?

There are lots of things people do to occupy their attention while driving—like listening to music. This actually seems to help people from drifting off in their own thoughts or becoming hypnotized by the monotony of the roadway. We seem to have no trouble with people fiddling with their CD cases, their complicated equalizers, shaving while driving, and any number of other things because we don’t consider them inherently unsafe.

Now, there are two ways of going about this. One way is to study each of the behaviors and calculate the actuarial risks of a mishap. You estimate how many drivers engage in a particular activity and how often, then you divide by how many mishaps occur. When you do this, texting while driving comes out to 1 chance in about 14 million, eating while driving is probably an even safer bet on an individual level, but still something you can work on at a public policy level.

The other way is to go about things is to wait until a mishap occurs and slap the guy with a negligent homicide charge and throw him in prison as “an example to the rest.” How do we know he was negligent? Because he caused a crash. The outcome defines both the act and the motive, even though the actual behavior and its motivation are indistinguishable from people taking relatively low-level risks.

The problem I have with the latter approach, apart from being a creation of 20/20 hindsight, is that it basically punishes people for being unlucky. This is not a case where people have less regard for other people’s lives than their own, since they are just as likely to die in a crash as cause someone else to die. In other words, they are betting their own lives on their judgment.

The final set of problems I have is that this draconian punishment is that it doesn’t deter anyone. Less than 10% of the population reads a newspaper, and of those, way less than 10% will even notice a two paragraph story deep inside the paper. It places vengeance above any other social policy aims, and only makes people bitter and mean. But worse, it diverts resources away from things that actually might do some good, like a series of public service announcements that would more likely persuade people not to do (whatever) and drive.

ragingloli's avatar

Humans are really crappy at doing two different things simultaneously. And this is gender independent.
If you do something else while driving, you WILL not concentrate on driving and making a mistake is almost guaranteed. And a mistake while doing 200 is deadly.

Zuma's avatar

I agree with you if you are talking about something like watching TV while taking the SAT. But people can walk and chew gum at the same time, and apparently tens of millions of people can drive while listening to the radio. In many respects, the world is designed in order to make it easier to do low-attention things simultaneously. The question is, at what point does it become unsafe, and how do you tell. And then, once you have made a standard, what do you do about it?

casheroo's avatar

I’m confused, are you saying other things should be just as punishable as texting while driving?? Are you saying she didn’t know she’d cause harm? (it’s early, so I’m slow today lol)

My husband can’t even carry a conversation, and drive a car at the same time. He starts making ridiculous mistakes, like missing turns, stopping short, running lights…all from just having a conversation! He can’t text while driving, but he can talk on the phone..presumably becasuse when I’m in the car he must look at me or something otherwise, I can’t explain it. A lot of drivers have different skills. But texting is super dangerous.

dynamicduo's avatar

ANY activity that is not actively paying attention while maneuvering a thousand pound machine is an unsafe risk. End of discussion. The problem is, how do you police such a thing, when one person can have a conversation while driving when another finds it too distracting? Obviously this is impossible to police. However, using your hands to do anything else is an easily identifiable misconduct. If a driver is alone and needs to consult a map, they should pull over and do so while not driving the car. All other things (eating, texting, putting on makeup) are the same.

Darwin's avatar

When you drive, you should drive, not text, not read a map, not read, not crochet, not put on make up, and not do a billion other things. Listening to the radio or having a light conversation can be acceptable if one does not get so wrapped up in what is going on that it diverts your attention from the road.

The goal should be to live in the moment while driving. That way 100% of your attention is on the road, the car and other drivers. Unfortunately, all too often we still tend to think about the itch on our left knee, the meeting we are attending in half an hour, or whether we left the stove on. Still, though, adding any other activity to driving is a risk.

Cell phone use is easier to monitor than some other things, such as distraction from listening to the radio, simply because it is visible from outside the car. It is also a new activity and thus is more obvious. That is why there are laws specifically focusing on cell phones.

Ideally, however, we should drive like we mean it, and not allow ourselves to be distracted by anything else.

fireside's avatar

Did she really get 6 years in jail for texting while driving?

Sounds more like manslaughter to me.

Facade's avatar

I think the government is wasting their time by trying to control what people do while driving. People are going to do things that distract their attention from the road. Anything from eating while driving to having kids in the car is distracting. Even trying to drive can be distracting (i.e. looking in the rear view when someone suddenly stops in front of you).

Zuma's avatar

@casheroo
Texting while driving is only illegal in about 16 states. In California it’s a $25 fine for the first offense and $50 for each offense thereafter. Unless you cause an accident, then they charge you with reckless driving or causing an accident.

According to a UK laboratory study on reaction time, texting while driving decreases reaction time by 36%; driving under the influence of alcohol decreased reaction time by 12%. But there is something wrong with these studies. When you look at the death rates you don’t find texting-related deaths at 3 times the DUI deaths. On the contrary, you find around 2,000 texting related deaths and about 13,000 DUI deaths. Hence, the correspondingly heavier penalties on DUI.

According to this same study, conversations on a hands-free cell phone showed the same slowed reaction times as conversations with people in the car. However, with people in the car, this was offset by them shrieking about your driving if you zone out and do something stupid.

Another study showed that eating while driving was about the same as using a cell phone, causing 1.7% and 1.5% of all accidents respectively. To put that in perspective, fender benders or animals running into the road accounted for 11.4% of accidents; passengers caused 10.9%; and objects falling off car seats caused 4.3%.

You raise an interesting point: what about people who have some kind of attention deficit disorder; at what point do they become unfit to drive?

Zuma's avatar

@dynamicduo
The problem with saying any risk at all is an unsafe risk, end of discussion, is that you lose the ability to distinguish between high risk and low risk behaviors. You remove science and scientific risk assessment from the equation and you substitute a kind of absolutist, zero-tolerance approach to risk that will inevitably end up criminalizing of a whole lot of behaviors that are actually quite low risk.

For example, one of the women I was discussing this with had been rear-ended by someone who was picking his nose. She positively seethes with loathing at all the other selfish morons out there who pick their noses and pay less than 100% attention to their driving. One can agree and even sympathize with her, but the mischief comes in when some ambitious DA parades her tearful story before the state legislature and they pass a law cracking down on nose-pickers to prevent this (one-off) type of thing from ever happening again. In a population of 200 million drivers there will eventually be another poor schmuck who will pick his nose and cause an accident, only now this guy will be facing prison time.

Indeed, how do you police this kind of thing when simply having a passenger in the car is more likely to cause an accident, or having something fall of a seat… You can’t live a zero-risk life. You can try, but you would never eat a steak, a peanut, a pistachio, spinach or chicken; you would never go out of the house and you would never meet anyone new, and you would never have sex.

Zuma's avatar

@fireside
Yep, they charged with vehicular manslaughter. This is part of a more general racheting up of the law. In New Jersey and in some other places they are now charging drivers in DUI-related deaths with murder, even though there is no intent to murder.

wundayatta's avatar

Two things:

First a six year old child in my children’s school was just hit by a hit and run driver who was allegedly using a cell phone at the time. She ran a red light, and hit the kid, breaking a leg and a collarbone and giving her a concussion. Her parents are real happy she’s still alive.

Second, my city has just banned handheld cellphone use in cars, and on bicycles, skateboards and scooters. (I guess motorcyclists don’t have the same problem.) As far as I can tell, they didn’t ban any other distracting activity. Hmmm, if you put your cellphone in a hamburger, can they tell what you’re doing?

As to the woman in your story, I can’t see how it matters whether she was on the phone or not. She was negligent, and should pay for it. If that is what you’re saying, Monty, I agree. If you’re saying she should get off because she didn’t know distractions create accidents, I don’t agree.

As to whether cellphone activity helps create accidents—well, depending on how the studies were done, I suppose I could be convinced. However, I don’t see how those distractions are any different from the hamburger eating distractions and such. I am reminded that when I was in Sweden many decades ago, I was told they had a law banning sneezing while driving. Why? Well you close your eyes for a moment when you sneeze, and your attention is distracted from driving. If we go after cell phone users, why don’t we go after sneezers?

Darwin's avatar

Technically, according to my driver’s ed teacher, in Texas at least if you need to sneeze you are supposed to pull over safely first. Then you can sneeze.

If a cop catches you sneezing and driving he can ticket you for unsafe operation of a motor vehicle.

Zuma's avatar

@daloon

“I can’t see how it matters whether she was on the phone or not. She was negligent, and should pay for it.”

Was she? Your reasoning strikes me as circular and post hoc:

Why did the woman cause the accident?
Because she was negligent.
How do we know she was negligent?
Because she caused an accident.

Did she have any reason to believe that her behavior was at all unsafe? Did she have any reason to believe that her actions would turn out so badly?

No, it was long before the (flawed) lab studies on reaction time, and it was well before any laws against texting while driving were passed or went into effect. And the actual odds of a mishap were about the same as winning the lottery.

The only way you can get to negligence, in my view, is to subscribe to the notion that somehow she should have known anyway. That taking any risk at all no matter how small is unsafe. (See my response to dynamicduo above.)

The problem I have with this that you could be found negligent for any accident you cause because a professional fault-finder, working from the vantage point of 20/20 hindsight, can always find something—sneezing, eating, or any of a whole host low risk behaviors—that puts the person at “fault.”

This is what we have casualty insurance for—to protect ourselves from civil claims when we are at fault.

What upsets me about this case is that it effectively strips that protection away by making us all criminally liable for our faults. If people’s faults were something that they could rise above by simple will power or by taking “personal responsibility,” then there wouldn’t be any need for liability or casualty insurance. But, not even the most careful person would or should take that bet.

Why carry insurance if you are going to be criminally charged anyway?

This woman is 49 years old, and they are proposing to throw her in prison for 6 years. That’s like taking someone’s small, fluffy lap dog and throwing it in a cage with pit bulls.

wundayatta's avatar

It’s manslaughter. I don’t know how manslaughter is usually penalized. I think people don’t always go to jail, but I guess they do sometimes. I think it is reasonable to expect people to be able to pay attention to road signs and barriers and such. People with enough moving violations can end up in jail. I don’t see why severity of the violation shouldn’t end with the person in jail.

The cell phone has nothing to do with it for me, as I said. I can use a cell phone while driving and pay attention (I think). If I were to cause an accident, I’d expect to have to pay. My insurance rates would go up. If I were to kill someone in an accident, I’d hope I wouldn’t go to jail, but I think it’s within the realm of possibility. Taking a life is a serious thing, even if you had no intention of doing it.

Your woman will probably get paroled after a year or two. If her lawyer doesn’t get her penalty reduced, or thrown out, on appeal.

Zuma's avatar

@daloon
That’s the question, is it manslaughter?

That’s certainly what they were charging her with, but does she meet the requisite level of recklessness or negligence? Leaving the cell phone (or whatever) out of it certainly simplifies the problem. It forces me to look closer to what the law actually is, and for that I thank you.

The one of the necessary elements of any crime is mens rea or “guilty mind,” although prosecutors have been nibbling away at this over the past 20 years. In manslaughter the standard is not whether you’ve taken a life but whether it was done through recklessness or criminal negligence.

Recklessness in American law is defined as “Conduct whereby the actor does not desire harmful consequence but…foresees the possibility and consciously takes the risk,” or alternatively as “a state of mind in which a person does not care about the consequences of his or her actions.” An example would be dropping a brick from a freeway overpass, hitting someone and killing them. They didn’t intend to kill the person, only to drop the brick.

“Negligence shows the least level of culpability, intention being the most serious and recklessness of intermediate seriousness, overlapping with gross negligence. The distinction between recklessness and criminal negligence lies in the presence or absence of foresight as to the prohibited consequences. Recklessness is usually described as a ‘malfeasance’ where the defendant knowingly exposes another to the risk of injury. The fault lies in being willing to run the risk.

But criminal negligence is a ‘misfeasance or ‘nonfeasance’ (see omission), where the fault lies in the failure to foresee and so allow otherwise avoidable dangers to manifest. In some cases this failure can rise to the level of willful blindness where the individual intentionally avoids adverting to the reality of a situation (note that in the United States, there may sometimes be a slightly different interpretation for willful blindness).

The degree of culpability is determined by applying a reasonable person standard. Criminal negligence becomes “gross” when the failure to foresee involves a “wanton disregard for human life.”

So ultimately it comes back to the nature of the act and whether a reasonable person could have reasonably foreseen the dangers involved back in 2007, without applying what we have since learned about slowed reaction times in Sept of 2008, or the laws that went into effect in 2009.

As you say, you still use the cell phone and drive. Assuming you are a reasonable person, are you being reckless or negligent by engaging in this behavior at the time you are doing it (which is one test)?

What changes when you have a mishap? Are you more reckless or negligent if you kill someone than if you merely injure them, or if you only damage property, or if only you are hurt? Does knowing about this woman’s case prove that texting-while-driving is inherently dangerous, when the 1 in 14 million odds against say otherwise? Does failure to “foresee an avoidable danger” really apply in cases where the danger in question is so small as to be virtually infinitesimal? And only discoverable in retrospect?

It looks to me as though the more damage you cause, the greater the debt you have to pay in order to make people whole, but isn’t that a matter for the insurance companies?

Manslaughter can get you 15 years in prison. PRISON, daloon, prison. (Jail would be even worse.) She will likely parole in 3 years with good behavior but, even so, this is likely to destroy her. (See my blog for what that entails).

And for what? If I hadn’t mentioned it, no one here would have ever even heard of this case, which puts the lie to the last remaining possible justification that she is being “made an example” of.

It is going to cost $148,500 to incarcerate this woman for 3 years, after which she will be an unemployable, broken, bitter woman. That money could be much better spent on public service announcements and public education. It is also money taken away, dollar for dollar, from higher education and health care.

fireside's avatar

She did miss a posted sign about upcoming roadwork, right?
Usually penalties in construction areas are doubled.

Either way she killed a person. Anyone who gets behind the wheel of a car should know that they are driving a deadly weapon and if they can’t pay attention to the signs on the road then who is to say that she wouldn’t have missed a small child who ran into the road to grab a ball? As you said, she actually got off light for manslaughter.

Darwin's avatar

Guys, anyone who has ever taken Driver’s Ed was been told multiple times to pay attention to the road when at the wheel of a vehicle. Anything that distracts or can potentially distract your attention from the road and the traffic around you is supposed to be verboten. That includes eating, grooming activities, conversation with passengers, reading maps, grabbing something that is sliding off the seat, and even using a cell phone whether they existed at the time you took Driver’s Ed or not.

Multi-tasking while driving is reckless behavior. Period.

The woman was doing something else while driving and she killed someone. That is reckless behavior that resulted in death. Hence, manslaughter.

The fact that cell phones are relatively new and that so many people don’t seem to be able to keep their hands off them while driving is the reason for the legal emphasis. If we could just use common sense the laws wouldn’t be passed.

But since when do all members of the human race demonstrate common sense?

wundayatta's avatar

I agree with folks who say the cell phone is irrelevant. She wasn’t paying attention, and she should have known better. I suppose you could blame the state for licensing her without proper testing. I don’t know.

As to the penalty, I’m not sure what the best penalty is. Perhaps making restitution to the woman’s family and friends. As you know, Monty, I don’t generally believe in punishment, and our prison system is about punishment, not rehabilitation. But this seems to me to be a kind of stupidity where rehabilitation won’t matter or be possible. So I resort to supporting punishment.

As to the issue of the level of harm being related to the level of punishment—doesn’t this make sense? If someone with manslaughter gets off with a slap on the wrist, a person who runs into a stop sign will be quite justified in thinking they should experience no consequence. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time may be an “accident,” but the level of culpability depends on the level of harm, it seems to me.

Zuma's avatar

@fireside
@Darwin
@daloon

Alright then, if you are all willing to go to prison for driving while picking your nose; for laughing; for sneezing; for eating; for attending to a fussy child; for trying to retrieve something that fell on the floor; etc., then so be it.

But, in so doing, aren’t we erasing the distinction between an accident and a crime? There is a distinction in law between “strict liability” and “recklessness,” the essential element being a foreseeable avoidable risk. If the risk is minuscule, what is there to foresee?

Should every form of “multi-tasking” be a crime? (Since virtually all accidents involve some lapse of attention of this sort?) And, if so, shouldn’t these behaviors be punished whenever they are detected and not just when something goes wrong?

Is there anywhere you would draw the line?

It looks to me as though people think that by making criminal penalties more and more severe, you can turn a low-risk society into a no-risk society. I’m all for the nanny state, but when it turns into a carceral state where instead of nagging you they send you to prison, I have to sit up and ask “What’s going on here?” We already have the largest prison system in the world, and it grows more brutal by the day.

Supposedly the 55-mph speed limit was to save 6,500 lives per year. When they repealed it, fatalities actually went down because very few people were observing it anyway, and those folks who poked along at 55 in the fast lane were actually creating a hazard by driving at a speed different from the flow of traffic.

How many years in prison do you think is fair if you kill someone because you were multi-tasking while driving, even though this the activity you were engaging in is not against the law and is objectively low risk considering the many millions of people who do it without mishap?

@daloon
Someone who runs a stop sign is engaging in something that is both illegal and objectively dangerous. And, moreover, they know it. Whether they kill someone or not is largely a matter of chance, which is why they are punished even when they don’t kill anybody.

When it comes to behaviors that are not illegal, there is a huge amount of chance involved. It seems to me that under the circumstances

fireside's avatar

I think the line is drawn with the death or disabling of another person.

My cousin had someone in the car with him who was put into a coma because someone else ran a stop sign. My cousin as the driver was mentally affected by this incident for years even though he wasn’t at fault.

What do you think is the appropriate response to a driver who is operating the vehicle which kills someone? A hug?

Zuma's avatar

@daloon
@fireside
Someone who runs a stop sign is engaging in something that is both illegal and objectively dangerous. And, moreover, they know it. Whether they kill someone or not is largely a matter of chance, which is why they are punished even when they don’t kill anybody.

In the case of your cousin, fireside, the person would have been guilty of manslaughter because the risks were known and disregarded.

The cases I am talking about here are different. They are behaviors that are not illegal, or they are behaviors where the risks are small and/or largely undocumented and unknown throughout the society.

In these cases there is a huge amount of chance involved in whether the outcome is going to be a near miss, a fender-bender, an accident without injury, an accident with injury or a fatality. It seems unfair to me to mete out penalties based on the outcome when the outcome is effectively determined by the luck of the draw. I think it a better social policy to look first at the inherent risk posed by specific behaviors and array sanctions accordingly—the way we do now, rather than based on outcomes, as you guys seem to be proposing.

Then, there is the question as to what we hope to accomplish when we punish. Is it to deter others? If so, in this case, resources would be better spent on a public education to inform people of a little known law regarding a little known (or believed) danger. Is it to make the victim’s family whole? If so, then insurance is would seem to be a better way to go rather than pulling this woman out of the economy for the rest of her life. Is it retribution in order placate the agrieved family’s thirst for vengeance? Is it to correct some lack of personal irresponsibility or lack of regard for others? If so, how does making her a social outcast, brutalizing her, and treating her with a lack of regard correct this personal deficiency?

Nils Christie, a Norweigan criminologist, describes how and why we interpret certain acts to be criminal and others not. He gives the example of a child who takes money from his mother’s purse without permission or who beats his brother. Why do we not formally charge him with a crime and turn him over to the state for punishment? Well basically, he says, it’s because we know him too well; we know all the mitigating circumstances; how his many good qualities outweigh the bad; and because we know him to be a good person and we value him.

Strangers are another matter, especially those who injure or offend us in some way. We do not have that intimate knowledge we have with the people who are near and dear to us, and so are willing to see them as evil and despicable.

My ex-wife was in a head-on collision with a guy who ran a red light. He was turning left and was coming through at such speed, that he got most of the way through the intersection before she clipped him on the rear end causing him to spin out. Even though he had run the red light, the cops said the accident was her fault because, he was already in the intersection and therefore “owned” it; she was supposed to yield, even though she didn’t have enough time react—something neither of us had heard of before. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt; she was only dazed and bruised, but the car was totaled. She was technically (i.e., 60%) at fault, but she was by no means negligent or reckless.

Had she killed him, I would still have given her a hug. And I could not see charging her for manslaughter just because that was how things turned out.

fireside's avatar

In the case of your wife, there were two parties at fault and had they solely charged her with manslaughter for killing him I would expect a good lawyer to make a case against that charge.

In the case of someone who does not see roadwork signs and hits another car which kills a person, they clearly were not paying attention. If a child had run into the road unexpectedly then it might have been an accident and that case could be made.

Clearly this woman’s lawyer could not make the case that the fault did not rest solely on her shoulders and thus the penalty.

wundayatta's avatar

@MontyZuma I see your point, and I am reconsidering mine. Or maybe not. The question to me is when does recklessness move over into negligence? I don’t know the answer. It seems to me that being distracted in a construction zone is pushing the edge of that boundary.

As to punishment—that’s all it is: revenge. It has nothing to do with rehabilitation. See, if it’s an accident, then there’s nothing that can be done about it. Yet, a life is gone and the accident was avoidable, had the person been paying a wee bit more attention.

I think that perhaps such people should be allowed to buy their way out of revenge. If they do their best to make the victims friends and relatives whole. A whole group of people is suffering, and this person gets to have insurance pay it off?

I guess there’s a sense of fairness here. I one person suffers, then the person who caused the harm should have equal suffering. Not to deter other people from making the same mistake. Not for rehabilitation. Just because they should reap what they have sown.

If they had only knocked over a stop sign, then no one really suffers. They can just pay to have it replaced. Or insurance can to that. But a life cannot be replaced, and should a person be let free to live the rest of their life, never knowing or understanding the suffering they have caused? Even if it is accidental?

See the thing is, many, if not most accidents can be avoided if you pay attention. An accident is a greater or lesser extend, the fault of the person who initiates it. If you are new to something, then it is more an accident, because you don’t know what you’re doing. I think that’s why, in some places, they hold parents responsible for their kids when the kids are learning to drive.

When you are a beginning carpenter or painter, or machinist, or writer, or whatever, you make more mistakes. At a certain point, though, you’ve made a lot of mistakes, and you should have learned how to avoid them. If you don’t, then you are at fault. Perhaps I’m draconian, but I have a rule. The first time someone I’m training makes a mistake, I tell them what they should have done. The second time, I get them to tell me what they should have dome. The third time, I’m done with them. Of course, I don’t really apply this in the real world, but I do think it. I get really really annoyed when people make the same mistake a third time.

I train folks to be careful, no matter what they are doing. If they make a mistake for which there is a correction they know of, I have little sympathy. They were careless, and are responsible for what they did (usually they only hurt themselves). They haven’t been paying attention, and are to blame. This rule is why you sometimes here me calling myself a “dolt” or an “idiot.” I make mistakes and should have known better. Perhaps I was deliberately taking an extra risk, but then, I don’t feel it’s a mistake. I gambled and lost. But when I do something because I wasn’t thinking or I was distracted—I blame myself.

Other people might get annoyed with me at times, because I’m not paying attention to them when they are saying something to me. Like my wife or kids. Usually it’s because I have something of a higher priority going on at the moment (like cooking) and if I lose focus, it’ll be ruined (usually it’s when I’m trying to stir two pots at once, saute something, and am checking the chopper to make sure it hasn’t chopped to much. Oh, and the oven timer goes off. I can’t talk at such moments.

Ah well, this is rambling, and not very focussed, I guess because this is a complicated or subtle issue. I hope something made sense.

Darwin's avatar

“The question to me is when does recklessness move over into negligence?”

Recklessness is when you do something that is risky but no one gets hurt. Negligence is when you do that same thing and end up injuring or killing an innocent person or destroying their possessions.

Zuma's avatar

@fireside
Excellent point! Her texting, whether it is really inherently dangerous, or whether she should have believed it so anyway, are all ultimately red herrings. She was in a construction zone, and that fact alone should have prompted her to be extra, extra, extra careful. Moreover, there was no question she knew she was in a construction zone because she traveled that way many times before.

Thank you, thank you, this is the one pivotal fact that makes all the difference and it finally settles my doubts as to her criminal recklessness. I can’t believe that I have been discussing this with a bunch of people over two weeks and we’ve all been wrapped up in these other issues and missed the decisive salience of this point.

@daloon
The French essayist Georges Bernanos wrote, “The worst, the most corrupting of lies, are problems poorly stated.”

“I think that perhaps such people should be allowed to buy their way out of revenge.”

Do you really mean revenge, as in retribution? Wouldn’t only the lower classes ever be punished? Would that be right? If prison permanently injures the earning power of breadwinners, wouldn’t this tend to make the poor poorer and poorer? (And the relatively better off, better off if their slots in the economy were given to people who could afford to stay out of prison?) In this respect, punishment is a kind of social sorting mechanism which tends to make people downwardly mobile.

“If one person suffers, then the person who caused the harm should have equal suffering. Not to deter other people from making the same mistake. Not for rehabilitation. Just because they should reap what they have sown.”

This seems uncharacteristically mystical. It posits a kind of cosmic order based on misery and suffering that requires that more or less requires society to add more misery to the world in order to keep it in balance. It does not seem to take into account as to whether the harm was intended. And, either way, it kind of strikes me as two wrongs making a right.

Inattention, careless, mistakes and blame. Can you ever be so careful that you won’t make a mistake? (E.g., bowling a perfect score.) Do you think terrorizing people with dire penalties will make them more careful? Improve their scores?

fireside's avatar

@MontyZuma – good to see you again

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

Well, in IL, the fine for killing a road worker is 14 years in jail and a $25,000 fine minimum. There are signs up everywhere stating this, and when you enter a construction zone, failure to slow down to the posted limit is an automatic $375 fine.

Cell phone or not, if you kill someone with your car because of your own negligence, then you are guilty of taking another person’s life. That’s what it boils down to, in my opinion. All this debate seems to miss the point. Cell phone, eating, reading, putting on makeup, crocheting, or anything else that IS NOT paying attention to driving is going to cost you. Driving is a privilege, and if you cannot do it safely, then you shouldn’t be allowed to drive.

Everybody is whining about this lady that is going to get six years; where are the people whining about the woman who was killed? Did she have a family? What is her family going to do now? If she had kids, who is going to take care of her kids? Seems the problem isn’t whether six years is a suitable punishment for texting; but if it a suitable punishment for killing someone. When that lady gets out of jail, the person she killed will still be dead.

wundayatta's avatar

I’m suggesting recompense; though not necessarily monetarily. Also with work. I’m looking for an alternative to prison. One that makes sense given the harm someone has done, due to their negligence.

Zuma's avatar

@evelyns_pet_zebra
What if that woman was you?

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

@MontyZuma, Well, then I’d take my punishment and hopefully get out early with good behavior.

I am a good driver, and I take great care on the road. Some people take it for granted that the other drivers are going to do the right thing. I am always cautious on the road, because I want to make sure I get to my destination safely.

Don’t ever forget: A left turn across traffic is the most dangerous driving maneuver you can make.

The only thing I do while driving is listen to the radio, and that is passive entertainment. I do not adjust the station while I’m moving; if a song comes on I don’t like, I turn the fucking thing off. I almost prefer to drive with no radio or other distractions, just the sound of my engine, my tires on the road, and the environment around me. No CD player, no texting, no cell phone use, when I drive, I focus on driving. When my cell rings, I reach down and push the button for it to go to voice mail without taking my eyes off the road. Whoever it is, can wait. I am not just some dork with a superior attitude about these things; I drove a large truck for several years. I had a CDL with a Haz Mat certification. I’ve seen things on the road (and still do everyday) that make me want to scream. I saw a lady textingjust yesterday, and she not only began creeping into my lane, she almost rear ended the guy who stopped in front of her; I’ve had people nearly crash into me because they are fiddling with their stereo or talking on a cell phone or reading a fucking map or a book. If you can’t pay attention while driving, then park the fucking thing and take a bus.

The last accident I had that was my fault was when I rolled an eight ton truck on the interstate back in 1997. It was my fault, too fast for conditions, lost control on a snow-slick roadway. Fortunately, no one was hurt, except for the vehicle, which was totaled. I learned very quickly that day that even the slightest distraction can be deadly. I also drove a school bus for two years back in the early nineties. You want to talk abut distractions, how about 45 kids behind you making all sorts of ruckus? Bitching, crying, fighting, even puking and other less savory things. And they are all someone else’s ‘little angels’. If I had a dollar for every time a parent told me that their little angel would never do X, I’d be rich. Two years accident free, and I could tell you horror stories about that particular driving job. I have no sympathy for some parent with four brats in the SUV; compared to driving a 72 passenger school bus, that’s nothing. When my school kids got out of control, I simply parked that bus until they settled down. If they were late getting to school or getting home, it was their own fault. Their safety was my number one priority.

There is no such thing as a perfect driver, so I can’t claim to be one; but I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t be in an accident because of my cell phone use. It’s simply about personal responsibility. Everyone has the responsibility to be as safe of a driver as possible. I have been driving for over thirty years, and I still learn something everyday. Distracting behaviors are not part of the program. Pay attention to the task at hand. I still stand behind my opinion.

Zuma's avatar

@evelyns_pet_zebra
Thank you for explaining. You have illustrated how someone who is normally very careful and conscientitious—a virtual poster child for personal responsibility—can still have a momentary lapse of judgement.

And, from the sound of it, it was pure luck that you didn’t kill anyone.

“Two years accident free” rather implies that you had an accident in 2007, in addition to the one you had in 1996. And possibly others.

A skilled prosecutor could easily take these admissions, along with the rest of your record—to construct a case that you are an unsafe accident-prone driver who, despite your safety epiphany in 1996 and best efforts to drive safely since then, still managed to have one or more accidents.

Shouldn’t you have learned from these accidents that you are overconfident in your abilities; that you are not as safe as you think you are; and that it is simply more bad judgement for you to continue to drive?

Knowing your record, aren’t you selfishly subjecting the rest of us to an unacceptable level of risk by continuing to drive? That is, if, despite your best efforts, you have another accident and kill someone, should anyone have any sympathy for you?

If there is any blemish on your record, no matter how slight, it will be brought up to prove what a bad person you are. The things don’t have to be bad, they only have to look bad. For example, if the police have ever given you a ticket, that’s almost as bad as having an accident, since it shows you have a “disregard” for the law.

Remember, the grieving family will be howling for your blood for depriving them of their little angel. Having killed someone is a difficult bell to unring; it will be very hard for anyone to see you in anything like a sympathetic light, or give you the benefit of the doubt, just as you have no sympathy for other people who have lapses in judgement.

And before you throw yourself on the mercy of the state, you should be aware that there isn’t any.

The job of the state (as they see it) is to prosecute what they see as scum like you to the absolute limit, and then some, if they can get away with it. (That’s how Assistant DAs build reputations get to be full DAs.) The discretion of judges has been greatly curtailed over the past 30 years; so don’t expect any consideration for your mitigating circumstances, or for a sentence tailored to your actual personality and character.

Chances are, your case will never go to trial. You will be offered a plea bargain, although in reality it won’t be anything you would consider a “bargain” because they typically overcharge you upfront. In other words, they will threaten you with something like 11 or 15 or 24 years in prison—whatever it takes—to get you to accept what they’ve already decided what you are going to get.

Now, before you say, “Well I screwed up, I’ll just go to prison and hope for the best” you might want to take a look at what prison actually entails before you consider what’s “fair.” The normal punishments of prison are bad enough, but due to overcrowding and lack of sympathy, you could very easily end up getting into something like this.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

Whatever MontyZuma, I don’t suppose that my explanation would do you any good, and I didn’t have any accidents after driving a school bus, I left that job due to the stress of babysitting other people’s fucking kids. The highway accident with the truck was out in the middle of nowhere, but hey, let’s just say you are right and the rest of us are horrible drivers because we don’t agree with you.

I don’t understand your attack on this situation when all I am proposing is personal responsibility, but you know, I sort of expected that from you when you found out I didn’t agree with you. If twisting my words without knowing the proper facts in my driving record turns you on so much, why don’t you try a career as an ambulance chaser, you seem to have the attitude for it down pat.

Zuma's avatar

@evelyns_pet_zebra
Whoa, whoa, whoa! No need to get personal.

I am not calling you a horrible driver. On the contrary; you are a good driver and, from what I can tell, someone who prides himself on being a responsible person. But that isn’t always enough. That accident you had could just as easily have been in a populated area and, if so, it would have been pure luck that you didn’t kill someone.

What I am trying to point out is that if you should ever do have such an accident in the future, you can expect to receive even less sympathy than you are inclined to give others.

That one lapse of judgement could have destroyed your whole life. And there would be plenty of people who would say you got off too lightly.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

@MontyZuma well, your reply seemed pretty damn personal, so I apologize for taking it in the wrong vein. As for me not giving anyone any sympathy; you are wrong there. It might read that way, but the point is I give people plenty of sympathy, when it is warranted. Sure, maybe that lady didn’t deserve six years, maybe she is a good person caught in a bad circumstance; I don’t know, I wasn’t there, I didn’t see her record, or sit in on her court case. I feel for her, but surely anyone knows that texting while driving is going to take your attention away from the task at hand. Too many people treat driving the same as sitting in a easy chair in their living room. Personally, I think vehicles have too many accesories. I drove a vehicle for almost seven years with no radio in it. I had to pay attention, there was nothing else to do. I think younger drivers should have to drive for five years without any distractions like radios and CD players. Might make them better drivers.

A guy I went to high school with was driving drunk several years ago, rammed a car from behind with a 6 yr old boy and his 65 yr old grandmother in it. Killed them both. He got 14 yrs. Served 7. Got out, got caught driving drunk again, this time with two 9 yr old nieces in the car. I think one felony DUI should be enough, after that, you lose your license forever, like I’ve read it is in Amsterdam. This idiot could kill again, and probably will, since he refuses to quit boozing it up and then go driving.

I am a very cautious and courteous driver. I have to be, because other people (not everybody, just those doofuses that feel they own the fucking road) seem to be completely unaware that they are supposed to be in control of the 4,000 pound machine they are driving. A car is no different than a rifle; both are deadly weapons in the wrong hands, no one should ever forget that. Sure, an accident may be in my future; there is no way to know, but I am going to always be careful on the road, because I have to be.

Zuma's avatar

@evelyns_pet_zebra
Thanks again for seeing this through. I can appreciate how frustrated you get at having to put up with the foibles of people less careful than yourself.

As you note, cars have an awful lot of distracting amenities. Sometimes I think that American car designers go out of their way to make you feel like you are sitting at home on the sofa; others seem to make it feel as though you are playing pin ball. It’s a wonder more people don’t get hurt.

The thing that struck me about the lady who got six years is how people piled on, demanding even more punishment in the face of even fewer facts that were presented here. There is obviously a lot of frustration out there, but I think that it can leads to an unseemly and, ultimately, counterproductive kind of scapegoating.

As you note, it seems to take a while for kids to develop a healthy respect for the risks and dangers involved in driving. Sometimes, it seems, they almost have to have kids and family of their own before they settle down.

Then there are some, like your DUI high school buddy, who never seem to get it, even with a stiff prison sentence. I’m thinking that there has got to be a better way.

Our adversarial system of justice, with its emphasis on avoiding self-incrimination, is not really conducive to people stepping up and admitting their wrongs, much less encouraging them to make amends, either through reconciliation or restitution or both. In other countries, there is a lot more emphasis on healing the people who are shattered by events of this sort and less on punishment for the sake of punishment. I think that something like that might be better than what we have now.

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