“I don’t know what was so important on your phone to distract you.”
Every single day we see them and likely have the same thoughts as Shawn Imitates Dog did — except he was reflecting on the death of his mother and the driver whose negligence took her life.
Theresa Martinez and two friends were traveling on U.S. Highway 18 on July 30, 2015, when their vehicle was struck by a Ford Expedition driven by Sophia Janis, who had one hand on the steering wheel and the other — along with her eyes — on the smartphone. The 27 year old told investigators she was checking Facebook when the tragedy occurred.
She now looks forward to 37 months in a federal prison after a judge decided to send a message that hopefully others will heed, but one delivered too late for 58-year-old Theresa Martinez.
Janis is hardly alone with the social media appetite she displayed on that dreadful day. In Rapid City, any leisurely drive on a main thoroughfare will reveal the extent of the grasp social media has on society. Drivers can be seen scrolling through social media websites or texting while operating a vehicle that weighs three, four or more tons and can have the destructive power of a missile.
The desire, need or compulsion to check social media sites or text while driving has become so commonplace nationally that Janis’ attorney offered it as reason to treat her with leniency before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken delivered his sentence.
“We’re all guilty of some form of that if you have a smartphone,” the attorney said after citing a study by Apple that said the average iPhone user unlocks their phone 80 times a day — proof that her client was acting within the norms of a digital society.
It was an argument the prosecutor, an assistant U.S. attorney, apparently bought. He recommended probation, which would have allowed the defendant to drive home and share the good news on her favorite social media platform.
For her part, Janis apologized for her “bad judgment” and asked the judge to “please have mercy on me and my family.”
Judge Viken, however, had thoughts of his own to express before disregarding the prosecutor’s recommendation. He called distracted driving an “enormous risk in modern society” and cited figures published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to the federal agency, the judge said 3,100 people died and 431,000 were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2014. While distracted driving can describe a broad range of behaviors like eating while driving or even listening to the radio, it is smartphone usage that is most often cited by experts and law enforcement when warning people about its dangers.
It is about time someone in a position of authority made a strong statement about the clear and present danger of operating a smartphone and vehicle at the same time. The Legislature has refused in the past to pass a law that takes the tiny step of making texting while driving a primary offense. Instead, it remains a secondary offense, which means it gets scant attention from law enforcement even though a person whose attention is riveted to a phone can be just as deadly as a drunken driver — as the family of Theresa Martinez knows all too well.
Judge Viken was willing to hold a young woman accountable for gross negligence while driving, while others were willing to downplay the behavior. The judge should be commended for taking this stand for public safety. The problem, however, is that the message is largely confined to those in the courtroom that day or read the story in the Rapid City Journal.
Viken’s message needs to be amplified by those who make policy in this state. The Legislature could at least consider tougher penalties for using a smartphone while driving. Attorney General Marty Jackley, who is running for governor, could make road safety a priority for his office and a talking point on the campaign trail. The law enforcement community could urge elected officials to pass tougher laws and then enforce them with the same vigor as drinking and driving.
Smartphones play an integral role in our lives and that will only continue but ignoring the consequences of distracted driving should not. A strong deterrence is needed or others will be asking the same question in the same circumstance as Shawn Imitates Dog did in a Rapid City courtroom.