The highest court in New Hampshire has upheld the assault conviction of a driver who was reading a text message as his car drifted across two lanes and into oncoming traffic. The result of the court’s ruling is that 30-year-old Chad Belleville will continue serving a three-and-a-half- to seven-year sentence for vehicular assault and second-degree assault. The court, in its unanimous ruling, said Belleville was recklessly negligent when he took his eyes off the road long enough to nearly hit one vehicle and then smash into two other vehicles without braking. The December 2010 crash on a highway near Pittsfield caused traumatic brain injury to a couple’s teenage son in the first car struck by the texting driver.
Sending a text message while driving has been against the law in New Hampshire since January 2010. It’s a motor vehicle violation punishable by a $100 fine. Reading a text while driving is not explicitly against the law in that state. Lawmakers in the state are currently debating several measures to restrict a driver’s use of electronic devices.
The court’s ruling is the second in a year involving felony convictions for distracted driving. The justices last year upheld the negligent homicide conviction of a woman who struck and killed a pedestrian in Franklin while talking on her cellphone. In that case, the justices concluded that even conduct allowed by law, including talking on a cellphone while driving, can be criminal if it results in inattention and distraction.
In each of these cases, the justices heard the arguments at a high school. This was an obvious effort for cases to resonate with young drivers. The message to young folks from this case is that a youngster was convinced and is still in jail. His lawyer argued in October – before 500 students at Concord High School – that Belleville taking his eyes off the road for the time it took to read the message did not rise to the level of felony recklessness. The justices disagreed. Justice Carol Ann Conboy wrote for the court:
Looking down to check a text message for the length of time it took to cross over the median, enter into the oncoming travel lane, nearly hit one vehicle and hit two others without braking or attempting to evade collision was a gross deviation from the conduct of a law-abiding citizen. A law abiding citizen would not have voluntarily remained inattentive for such an appreciable length of time over such a distance.
The court noted that Belleville drove across the median, which was approximately the width of two lanes and offset by two sets of solid double yellow lines. The court said Belleville’s case is different from circumstances of the court’s reversal in 2009 of three negligent homicide convictions against a man whose car crossed the center line and killed three motorcyclists. In that case, the court ruled the driver’s “two-second failure to keep his car in its lane” did not constitute criminal negligence.
But the court said Belleville’s conduct “was more than a case of momentary inattention, such as might be caused by changing a radio station or sneezing.” The lesson from this court’s ruling is that texting and driving a powerful motor vehicle – much like drinking and driving – simply don’t mix. That lesson must be learned by folks of all ages. So far it hasn’t fully registered with the public and that’s not good from a highway safety perspective.
Source: Claims Journal
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