Keizer Distracted Driving Case Breaks New Legal Ground

A recent article in the Salem Statesman-Journal outlined a distracted driving conviction in Keizer that was a first for Oregon. According to the newspaper “a Medford woman became the first person ever to be convicted of causing another person’s death by driving while distracted by her cell phone.”

The 50-year-old woman pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide earlier this month “and was sentenced to three years of supervised probation,” the newspaper reported. The September 2015 accident took the life of a 68-year-old man who was crossing the street when struck by the woman’s car.

The case highlighted a significant loophole in Oregon’s distracted driving statute. As the Statesman-Journal reports, a 2015 Oregon Appeals Court ruling (State v Rabanales-Ramos – 273 Or App 228 (2015)) took a narrow view of the Oregon distracted driving law (ORS 811.507), essentially creating a loophole for all forms of distracted driving other than talking on the phone or texting. Under this interpretation, for example, using an eReader such as a Nook or Kindle would have been permitted while driving.

The legislature is currently moving to close this loophole. A bill, HB2597, currently being considered by the Oregon House Judiciary Committee, would broaden the scope of the distracted driving law to all “mobile electronic devices,” increase the penalties for distracted driving generally and increase them even further for both repeat offenders and for distracted driving accidents if the offense contributes to an accident.

In the meantime, as the newspaper reports, prosecutors have figured out a way to ensure accountability. The Keizer case was built on the idea that in spite of the distracted driving loophole, police “can cite someone for careless, reckless and criminally negligent homicide if their distracted driving behaviors result in a law violation, crash or death.” That is what happened in this case, where the woman was using her cellphone at the time of the crash but was neither talking on it nor texting.

This idea of broader accountability can also extend to the civil law consequences of a fatal accident. The guilty plea entered in this case goes a long way toward ensuring that justice is properly served, but it does not prevent the family of the deceased man from filing a wrongful death suit in Oregon’s courts. The existing distracted driving loopholes also do not prevent this form of accountability.

The details of this case as reported in the media bring together a number of separate legal areas that have all been part of my practice as a Portland lawyer. Car crashes and distracted driving are consistent problems that the legislature, local government and public education campaigns have worked for many years to solve. The good news is that progress has been – and is still being – made. The bad news is that distracted driving is coming to seem like one of those problems that can be mitigated by society but never completely solved. Fortunately, our court system is here to help the victims of accidents like this one get the justice they deserve. In the meantime, it is also worth keeping an eye on HB2597 and getting in touch with legislators to support its passage.

 

Salem Statesman-Journal: Deadly Keizer crash leads to first distracted driving crash conviction in Marion County

ORS 30.020: Action for Wrongful Death

Oregon Legislature: HB2597 status page