That’s Alabama’s new policy, unofficially. Jonathan Raynes is now serving two years in prison followed by eight years of probation after a fatal texting and driving accident. After “momentarily taking his eyes off the road”, Raynes said he swerved to avoid a stopped car in front of him. In doing so, he tragically collided head on with the victim.
Two important evidentiary facts came out in court.
First, the prosecution proved Raynes was continuously on his phone while driving, sending texts, instant messages and using multiple social and dating apps. Using an FBI digital forensic examiner as a witness, they showed Raynes last “manipulated” his phone 32 seconds before the first 911 call- not crash.
Then the defense stepped up, unsuccessfully arguing Raynes wasn’t using his phone at the fatal moment. Plus, she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt- a clear violation of Alabama’s laws.
Would she still be alive if she was?
Mike Mitchell, a Birmingham, AL accident attorney and owner of The Mitchell Law Firm, LLC, says the answer to that question may have mattered more just a decade ago. He says while seat belts are well known to save lives, reducing crash-related injuries and deaths by almost 50 percent annually- saving close to 13,000 lives just in 2014- distracted driving is now equally well-known to take lives.
Safety advocates made distracted driving awareness a powerful social movement with national campaigns; researchers shared startling results, equivalating distracted drivers to drunk drivers. Because of this, Mitchell explains juries are more likely to convict fatal distracted drivers of manslaughter- meaning the driver knew they were taking a risk by using their phone yet consciously decided to ignore them.
And that’s exactly what the jury in Raynes cases did. In the past, drivers in fatal car accidents (not involving a substance like drugs or alcohol) typically faced vehicular manslaughter, or as Alabama calls it, criminally negligent homicide. As a Class C Felony, vehicular manslaughter means the driver didn’t know his driving was dangerous or reckless but should have, and therefore is met with a less severe punishment than manslaughter. But given today’s knowledge, the “didn’t know, but should have known” argument is becoming less and less believable.
It’s an unprecedented ruling for Alabama and much of the nation. And while prosecutors and the judge hope it sends a statement about the personal consequences distracted drivers may face, it may also be the beginning of punishments similar to drugged, drunk or reckless driving.