WOONSOCKET – The driver in a crash that knocked out power across a wide swathe of the city last week admitted he lost control while he was on his cell phone, but there isn’t much the police can do about it.
“He was preoccupied by dialing his phone, but he wasn’t texting,” said Lt. Brad Scully of the Woonsocket Police Department’s Accident Prevention Bureau. “The law says you have to be texting while driving to be cited. It’s very specific.”
Patrick Beane, 53, of South Kingstown, veered across two travel lanes on Diamond Hill Road, snapped a utility pole in two places and narrowly missed a house before coming to rest on Wednesday. The crash resulted in a power outage that left numerous business, municipal offices and residences without power for more than 12 hours.
Among those affected was the Woonsocket Police Department, whose dispatch console was damaged by the resulting power surge.
“It’s not very significant damage,” said Police Chief Thomas Carey, but the department is nevertheless considering a claim against Beane’s insurance carrier.
Despite the havoc, Beane wasn’t seriously injured. He was treated for facial bruises and other minor abrasions but he was not admitted to a hospital.
While Beane didn’t get away scot-free – he was fined $85 for leaving a travel lane, according to Scully – the accident points up a continuing debate in the law enforcement community over the use of cell phones while driving.
Rhode Island is one of 39 states that specifically ban text-messaging while driving, but 10 others prohibit all use of handheld cell phones behind the wheel, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association.
“Rhode Island does have a no-texting while driving statute but there is not a more general distracted driving statute,” says State Prosecutor Jay Sullivan. “I can tell you this, in states that do have them, they’re very difficult to enforce.”
Sullivan says that to his mind, “distracted driving is the number one cause of crashes because nobody intends to hit a telephone pole or another car. There is some sort of distraction related to every crash. The question becomes how far does one have to go before the conduct of the driver is more than negligent conduct or rises to criminal conduct.”
In the Rhode Island General Assembly, State Sen. Susan V. Sosnowski (New Shoreham, South Kingstown) – one of the original sponsors of the ban on texting – has repeatedly championed legislation to that would prohibit drivers from using a non-hands-free cell phone while operating a motor vehicle.
“Talking on a cell phone while driving is just plain dangerous, and is the cause of thousands of car accidents a year,” Sosnowski once said in support of tougher curbs on cell phone use. “Unless we prohibit this practice, innocent people will continue to be injured or killed on our roadways.”
So far, Sosnowski has not reintroduced the measure in the 2013 legislative session, the legislative press said. Sosnowski could not be reached for comment.