‘In the Blink of an Eye’
Jorene Nicolas of San Diego, now 35, was convicted of felony vehicular manslaughter in Deanna’s death. In the hour leading up to the crash, Nicolas had sent or received 14 messages and received two calls, according to her cell phone provider. She later said she was in a “big hurry” to meet her boyfriend for lunch.
Court documents suggest she was so distracted that she hadn’t realized traffic was at a standstill in front of her. The black box in her Toyota Prius revealed she was traveling 85 mph at the moment of impact. There was no evidence that she had applied the brakes or turned the steering wheel before rear-ending Deanna’s Hyundai, pushing it into the car in front of it, and then the center divider.
After the crash, another driver on the scene pulled Nicolas from the passenger side of her vehicle. Witnesses recounted Nicolas asking that driver to get her cell phone from her car and replying to questions with, “Where is my phone?” Nicolas eventually went to retrieve it herself, and was talking on her phone when a CHP officer arrived.
Nicolas’ conviction took 4-1/2 years and two trials. The first trial ended with a hung jury; the second, a six-year jail sentence. During her sentencing, Nicolas did not admit to texting and driving, just that “everything happened in the blink of an eye,” she told the court in 2015. “Living day to day with the knowledge of what I did and the pain I caused is unbearable.”
But 22 months after she was convicted, the decision was overturned because of an instructional error by the judge, and her punishment was reduced to one year in jail and three years of probation. Nicolas, a mother of a young girl, served 1,404 days (nearly four years) before her release. To avoid a third trial, Nicolas pleaded guilty to all charges.
On the surface, Nicolas’ reckless actions might be easily condemned, but her behavior is all too common. The 2016 Traffic Safety Culture Index revealed “a majority of motorists say texting or talking on the phone while driving is an unacceptable safety hazard, yet a large proportion of those same people also admit to doing it within the previous 30 days,” says Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research.
Distracted driving is probably underreported, Nelson adds, because “most people will not admit they were distracted at the time of the crash.”
A fatality complicates the problem: If the driver dies, “you can’t determine after the fact if somebody was distracted the way you can with somebody who was intoxicated,” Nelson says. As a result, law enforcement has a hard time collecting accurate data about the role of distracted driving in traffic crashes.
The Multitasking Myth
NHTSA defines distracted driving as “any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo or navigation system—anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.”
Distractions can be sorted into three categories: visual tasks that require the driver to look away from the roadway to visually obtain information, manual tasks that require the driver to take a hand or hands off the steering wheel to manipulate an object or device, and cognitive tasks that involve thinking about something other than driving.
While visual and manual forms of distracted driving, like tuning the radio dial, tend to bring higher degrees of risk, those risks tend to be shorter in duration, says AAA’s Nelson. Mental distractions, like having a conversation, come with lower levels of risk, but they take much longer to complete, he says, “so the net impact at the end of the day is that they rival one another for how risky they really are.”
People who text or operate the vehicle’s air-conditioning controls while driving may think they’re multitasking. “The reality is there’s no such thing,” Nelson says. “You’re switching back and forth between driving and doing other things. That’s fine if you’re sitting at your desk at work, but not in a car and driving 70 mph down the road.
“There’s a finite bandwidth with your brain just as there is with your computer or smartphone,” he says. “If you’re trying to do too many things at one time, everything moves more slowly. You’re not processing things as quickly as you need to.”
Of all these distractions, texting is the most dangerous, according to NHTSA. Sending or reading a text typically takes a person’s eyes off the road for five seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed. In addition, the AAA Foundation found that drivers may be mentally distracted for up to 27 seconds after sending a text message—even if they’re using a hands-free system. That’s why it’s unsafe to send a text even at a stoplight