- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2000

A researcher testified yesterday that talking on a cellular phone while driving is "comparable to driving while drunk," and that's why a midshipman ran his car off the Capital Beltway, killing a New York couple during the Thanksgiving weekend last year.

"It wasn't until he reached for his cellular phone and began using it that he lost control of his vehicle," Frances Bents, a highway-safety researcher, told Prince George's County Circuit Judge Ronald D. Schiff.

Jason Jones, 20, is charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter and other traffic charges. He took the stand yesterday to explain how he cried after the crash and hopes to "serve my country" in the Navy.

His non-jury trial, which could conclude today, is the first-ever U.S. criminal case of vehicular homicide involving a driver distracted by a cell phone, according to prosecutors.

The youth faces a maximum of 10 years in prison on each manslaughter charge.

John and Carole Hall of Long Island died on the scene Nov. 28, 1999, after Mr. Jones' Pontiac Grand Prix careered off the road and struck their parked Mazda Protege on the highway shoulder near Oxon Hill.

Assistant State's Attorney Michael D. Herman insists Mr. Jones may have been driving at speeds of more than 100 mph. The prosecutor said the defendant acted "grossly negligent" by swerving across several lanes while paying more attention to a cell phone than the road.

Defense attorney Stephen Markey is arguing that his client had been driving near the posted speed limit of 55 mph and was merely trying to get off at the nearby Route 210 exit when a "tragic accident" took place.

Mr. Herman put two researchers on the witness stand to illustrate the dangers of talking while driving. Both Ms. Bents and University of Iowa professor John Lee said phone use covers all four components of driver distraction auditory, visual, biomechanical and cognitive.

"The actual acts of dialing can be disruptive," he said. "The conversation itself can be distracting."

Stories of reckless drivers on phones have prompted 37 states to offer restrictive legislation, even though none has passed laws banning cell-phone use while driving, Ms. Bents said. There are 104 million cell-phone users in the United States, she said.

Mr. Markey argued against accepting the researchers as "experts" in such a groundbreaking case. He asked the judge to strike Ms. Bents' testimony, saying it is based on opinion.

The lawyer did not have time to finish his defense yesterday.

Sandra Jones, the midshipman's mother, said her son was heading to their Fort Washington home from his girlfriend's Rockville house on the morning in question so he could attend church. After the crash, she said, Mr. Jones was "very shaken and crying."

The youth testified that he had been traveling about 60 mph on the Beltway after crossing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge before slowing to about 55 to exit. He said he saw a car about a half-mile ahead with no flashing lights and assumed it was moving.

He picked up the phone to call his mother, holding the phone in his right hand and the steering wheel with his left hand.

"I figured I would call her to let her know I was close," said the well-spoken midshipman, who wore his dark naval uniform on the stand. "As I glanced up to see where I was … there was a car immediately in front of me."

There was no time to apply brakes or veer away, he said.

During cross-examination, Mr. Herman noted that a witness to the car wreck already testified that Mr. Jones had been speeding, in her estimate, at 80 mph to 90 mph. The prosecutor asked him why that witness would lie.

Mr. and Mrs. Hall's two children were returning home from Virginia with the couple when son Michael, now 11, wanted to stop along the road to relieve himself. He was not hurt in the crash, but his sister, Sarah, now 17, suffered back injuries.

Suffolk County, N.Y. where the Halls lived became the first county in the nation to make it illegal for drivers to use handheld cell phones. In October, the county executive signed a law passed by the county legislature that bans driving while using a mobile phone without a hands-free microphone device.

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