It’s Alabama’s first conviction of manslaughter while texting and driving: Jonathan Raynes, 23, will serve two years in prison followed by eight years of probation for a car accident killing 24-year-old Miranda Hamilton.
Raynes, who momentarily took his eyes off the road, swerved into oncoming traffic in an attempt to avoid hitting a stopped car in front of him. Instead, his F-150 (check) collided head on with Hamilton’s F150. She was thrown from the truck and subsequently died of her injuries; she was not wearing a seatbelt.
Over four days in court, the prosecution argued Raynes was fixated on his phone while driving, sending texts and instant messages and visiting multiple social apps including online dating sites. An information and technology specialist and digital forensic examiner for the FBI – the FBI was not involved in this case, but other agencies can ask for their expert testimony- agreed, noting the last time Raynes “manipulated” his phone was 32 seconds before the first 911 call.
In Alabama, all cell phone use (including hands-free) is illegal for novice drivers while only texting and driving is illegal for all drivers.
Rayes unsuccessfully argued he was not using his phone at the fatal moment nor was it a distraction. It’s possible that very argument, however, is what led the jury to convict him not of criminally negligent homicide (Class C Felony), but the more severely punished charge of manslaughter (Class B Felony).
But what’s the difference? Birmingham car accident attorney Mike Mitchell, of the Mitchell Law Group, explains a criminally negligent homicide (vehicular manslaughter in most states) would imply Raynes didn’t know his driving was reckless or dangerous, but should have. And since talking on the phone or using GPS isn’t illegal under Alabama’s current distracted driver laws, it’s the usual charge for fatal car accidents that make it to trial. Manslaughter, however, means the jury believed Raynes was aware of the risks and consciously decided to ignore them.
Mitchell said the ruling is unprecedented for Alabama. Many, including the prosecution team, hope the ruling sends a statement about the personal consequences for those who text and drive. Because, unfortunately, the state’s shocking statistics of distracted driving was failing to do just that.
Alabama Car Accident Statistics
Alabama drivers are twice as likely to die in a car accident than the average American, with 14 deaths per 100,000 compared to the nation’s average of seven. That fact is not surprising to local police, though, as the Alabama State Troopers spokesman, Cpl. Jess Thornton, once said “we’re washing blood off of our highways every day.”
The statistics below prove Thornton’s statement was sadly no exaggeration. Most statistics are from 2014, the most recent year Alabama released a “crash facts” report.
1. 821 people died in a total of 739 car crashes
2. A car accident occurred every four minutes
3. A fatality occurred every 10 hours
4. An injury occurred every 13 minutes
5. For each fatality, there were 48 injuries
6. 95 pedestrians were struck and killed by cars
7. 61 motorcyclists/moped riders died in crashes
8. 8 bicyclists died in an accident with a car
9. Alabamians have a 98 percent chance of being in a crash of any severity in their lifetime
10. Alabamians have a greater than one-in-three chance of being in a crash with an injury or death
News stories sharing these statistics could cover the state with their print; yet, Alabama’s crash and fatality rate rose again in 2016. Despite car manufacturers continuously adding new safety features – back-up camera, blind-spot detection, forward collision warning, lane-keep assist- Mitchell points out besides major product recalls the most common theme he sees in the news and in his car accident cases is human error.
The Mitchell Law Group frequently writes about car and passenger safety.
Below they share some important warnings of not just texting and driving, but all distracted and reckless driving habits in general.
1. The top three most prevalent crash types are: drug use, speeding, and restraint not used
2. Failure to yield the right-of-way is the No.1 cause of most non-fatal crashes
3. Speeding is the No.1 factor in fatal crashes
4. A 10 mph reduction in speed reduces the probability of fatalities by 50 percent
5. A driver texting is 23x more likely to be in a crash than a non-distracted driver
6. Human error accounts directly for 57 percent of crashes and indirectly to 36 percent more crashes
While it may seem elementary, it may be time for Alabamians to get back to car safety basics. Don’t drive drugged, drunk, drowsy or distracted. Always properly wear a seatbelt and make sure car seats are properly installed and used- even in rental cars. Obey the speed limits, traffic signals and remain alert for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists. Finally, lead by example, especially when driving with young children.