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WOONSOCKET â 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 isnât much the police can do about it.
âHe was preoccupied by dialing his phone, but he wasnât texting,â said Lt. Brad Scully of the Woonsocket Police Departmentâs Accident Prevention Bureau. âThe law says you have to be texting while driving to be cited. Itâs very specific.â
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.
âItâs not very significant damage,â said Police Chief Thomas Carey, but the department is nevertheless considering a claim against Beaneâs insurance carrier.
Despite the havoc, Beane wasnât seriously injured. He was treated for facial bruises and other minor abrasions but he was not admitted to a hospital.
While Beane didnât get away scot-free â he was fined $85 for leaving a travel lane, according to Scully â 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 Governorâs Highway Safety Association.
âRhode Island does have a no-texting while driving statute but there is not a more general distracted driving statute,â says State Prosecutor Jay Sullivan. âI can tell you this, in states that do have them, theyâre very difficult to enforce.â
Sullivan says that to his mind, âdistracted 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.â
In the Rhode Island General Assembly, State Sen. Susan V. Sosnowski (New Shoreham, South Kingstown) â one of the original sponsors of the ban on texting â has repeatedly championed legislation to that would prohibit drivers from using a non-hands-free cell phone while operating a motor vehicle.
âTalking on a cell phone while driving is just plain dangerous, and is the cause of thousands of car accidents a year,â Sosnowski once said in support of tougher curbs on cell phone use. âUnless we prohibit this practice, innocent people will continue to be injured or killed on our roadways.â
So far, Sosnowski has not reintroduced the measure in the 2013 legislative session, the legislative press said. Sosnowski could not be reached for comment.