Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

You see it every day in traffic, motorists driving with cellphones pressed firmly against their ears. But it’s an illegal act that could land them with far more than a traffic fine.

London resident Wendy Thompson found this out the hard way after she slammed into a stationary car, killing its 84-year-old driver and seriously injuring his wife, in February last year.

The collision occurred while Thompson was racing to a business meeting. Throwing caution to the wind, she applied her attention to her phone to send a Facebook birthday message while using her other hand to plug her cellphone into the car’s charger.

A police investigation into the accident found that she would have had sufficient time to see the stationary car and avoid the collision if she had not been distracted by her phone.

Thompson was charged on two serious counts: causing death by dangerous driving, and causing serious injury by dangerous driving.

Last month, she found herself facing a judge in the Old Bailey, the central court dealing with major criminal cases in greater London.

"A high-profile hearing in the Old Bailey reflects just how seriously her crime was viewed," says Maria Philippides, a director and insurance sector specialist at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright.

Thompson’s crime earned her 27 months in jail and the suspension of her driver’s licence for 10 years.

There are no similar cases in SA, says Philippides. "But SA tends to follow what happens in the UK, so I would not be surprised to see a similar case here in due course."

If the same were to happen here, a driver would probably be charged with culpable homicide, says Philippides.

It is a crime that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in jail.

A collision caused by a driver using a cellphone also has unpleasant implications from an insurance perspective.

"Insurers provide cover to people against loss through their own negligence," says Philippides. "But if they do something so stupid that they deviate from what a reasonable person would be expected to do, it becomes recklessness. In a case of recklessness, insurers can reject a claim and [they] have often done so in SA."

This raises the question of how insurers will deal with claims involving vehicles with technology such as smart windshields on which directions, vehicle data and, most concerningly, even advertising can be displayed.

"I would think vehicle manufacturers must be sure smart windshields are safe," says Philippides. "But we do not know how the courts and insurers will react.

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