By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
Published: November 1, 2009
OXFORD, England — Inside the imposing British Crown Court here, Phillipa Curtis, 22, and her parents cried as she was remanded for 21 months to a high-security women’s prison, for killing someone much like herself. The victim was Victoria McBryde, an up-and-coming university-trained fashion designer.
Driven to Distraction
Multitasking as a Crime
Articles in this series examine the dangers of drivers using cellphones and other electronic devices, and efforts to deal with the problem.
Ms. Curtis had plowed her Peugeot into the rear end of Ms. McBryde’s neon yellow Fiat, which had broken down on the A40 Motorway, killing Ms. McBryde, 24, instantly.
The crash might once have been written off as a tragic accident. Ms. Curtis’s alcohol level was zero. But her phone, which had flown onto the road and was handed to the police by a witness, told a story that — under new British sentencing guidelines — would send its owner to jail.
In the hour before the crash, she had exchanged nearly two dozen messages with at least five friends, most concerning her encounter with a celebrity singer she had served at the restaurant where she worked.
They are filled with the mangled spellings and abbreviations that typify the new lingua franca of the young. “LOL did you sing to her?” a friend asks. Ms. Curtis replies by typing in an expletive and adding, “I sang the wrong song.” A last incoming message, never opened, came in seconds before the accident.
With that as evidence, Ms. Curtis was sentenced in February under 2008 British government directives that regard prolonged texting as a serious aggravating factor in “death by dangerous driving” — just like drinking — and generally recommend four to seven years in prison.
The case reveals the tensions that arise when law enforcement and the courts begin to crack down on a dangerous habit that has become widespread and socially acceptable. Is texting while driving bad judgment, or a heinous crime? And what is the appropriate punishment?
Upon hearing the sentence, prosecutors — backed by the police and Ms. McBryde’s mother — quickly appealed to Britain’s highest court for a longer prison term, calling 21 months “unduly lenient.”
“She came across as a lovely young girl, and I’m sure it wasn’t a nice feeling for the judge to send someone like this to prison — but someone is dead because of a text message,” said Bill Sykes, the officer who responded to the crash and led the subsequent investigation.
But many young people, among them the dead woman’s own siblings and friends, disagreed, sympathizing also with Phillipa Curtis. “I think Phillipa’s sentence was long enough, as she seemed like such a normal girl,” said Gemma Pancoust, the victim’s cousin and close friend, with whom she liked to sing karaoke to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” “Until Tory’s death I texted while driving, as have most people. I don’t think she realized the danger she was causing.”
Indeed, the victim herself had sent a text message and talked on her cellphone (using the speaker function) while driving before her car broke down, according to the testimony of a friend with whom she had the 20-minute phone conversation. It is illegal in Britain to use a hand-held phone while driving, and drivers using hands-free phones may be fined if they are deemed not in control of the vehicle.
Although most European countries and a minority of American states now ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, Britain has become one of the more aggressive countries in attacking the problem, according to Ellen Townsend, policy director for the European Transit Safety Council, which advises the European Commission.
Britain’s new guidelines state that using a hand-held phone when causing a death will “always make the offense more serious” in terms of punishment and lead to prison time. Texting is given special treatment.
Ms. Curtis was found guilty and sent to prison even though she was not texting at the time of the accident, because the new guidelines regard “reading or composing text messages over a period of time” as “a gross avoidable distraction.” Its effect, British judges have ruled, may go beyond the moment of composing a message. Such behavior is categorized the same as driving while drunk or high on drugs, as well as racing another driver.
On the night of Nov. 20, 2007, the victim, Ms. McBryde, was on her way to visit a friend when she got a flat tire at night on the highway.
She pulled to the edge of the road, two lanes in each direction, but because there was no shoulder where her car broke down, part of the vehicle extended into the outer lane. When the towing service she called could not respond, she was frightened and called her mother, Jennifer Ford, who said she would call the Automobile Club again.
In the meantime, Ms. Ford told her daughter to make sure the flashers were on and that she was pulled off the road. “She was like, ‘Mom, of course I did these things,’ ” Ms. Ford recalled in an interview.
When she called her daughter back 20 minutes later, no one answered. By that time Victoria McBryde was dead.
Police photos show an impossibly crumpled car. The belongings of its owner, a pet lover who designed wild outfits and paraphernalia for pets, were strewn about: bright pink scarves, a brown shearling coat, red gloves, a tangle of leopard skin print.
In court, the case centered on the fact that Ms. Curtis had made no effort to brake or swerve to avoid the disabled Fiat. She testified that she had never seen the other car, though road studies performed by the police demonstrated that it should have been visible from about 300 yards back on the highway.
Ms. Curtis said she believed she could drive and text at the same time, saying that she did not have to look at the keyboard or the screen to have a conversation. Like many phones, hers had predictive text — the phone would fix spelling and find the right word if she typed in a rough approximation.
“I don’t think I should be chatting away while maneuvering roundabouts,” she said in testimony, adding that she would probably have slowed down while composing messages and that texting while driving might be safe “in the right conditions.”
The police disagreed. “How could she not see it, given that the night was clear and the car’s lights were on?” Mr. Sykes said. “She was clearly distracted.”
During the trial, the lawyer who defended Ms. Curtis, Richard Latham, proved that Ms. Curtis was not sending a message in the moments before the crash. But a new text message had arrived just seconds before she plowed into the Fiat. And prosecutors contended that, in light of the long preceding text message conversation, the ping of the incoming message distracted her so that she did not notice Ms. McBryde’s disabled car.
Although cellphone records showed that the message was never opened, prosecutors said she was unable to resist trying to do so. “Since she had read all messages before, she was probably looking to read this one, too,” Mr. Sykes said.
The jury deliberated only 50 minutes before returning a guilty verdict. Ms. Curtis and her family did not respond to requests for an interview through her lawyer.
The lord chief justice of England and Wales, Lloyd Jones, heard the appeal to extend the 21-month prison term. While concluding that the punishment was “lenient” and “arguably it was unduly so,” he declined.
He cited Ms. Curtis’s “positive good character” as well as her “genuine remorse” over the collision. Equally important, he said, she had already been assigned a release date from prison, making an extension cruel. But in an impassioned decision he also made it clear that the courts are now poised to take this crime seriously.
Victoria McBryde’s family, which used to celebrate holidays in their rural home with huge meals and Christmas trees they had cut themselves, has struggled. Her mother, who moved out of the family house, now lives in a shared home in Northampton and from a nearby Internet cafe wages a campaign for tougher laws.
Ms. Pancoust still posts loving messages to her dead cousin on her Facebook page. But she no longer sends texts while driving. By e-mail message, she added: “It’s sad as you have people out there who think they are invincible and things like that don’t happen to them. But it does.”