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Conn. accident reinforces distraction dangers

HARTFORD - A teenage driver was arrested during the weekend after authorities said the distraction of a handheld cellphone caused her to fatally hit a jogger.

Kenneth Dorsey, 44, an avid runner, was on a morning jog in Norwalk, Conn., and training for a marathon March 24, when he was fatally struck by the sport utility vehicle the girl was driving, according to his father, Leo Dorsey.

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The New Canaan girl, whom police are not naming because of her age, was charged Saturday with negligent homicide with a motor vehicle, using a handheld telephone under age 18 while driving, and failure to drive in the proper lane. Police declined to say exactly what she was doing on the phone, only that they found evidence she was using the keypad before Kenneth Dorsey was hit on a busy street.

“There’s no reason to use a phone while you’re driving a car,’’ Leo Dorsey said Tuesday. “There is nothing out there that important. I totally, totally have to believe that these phones can be made to shut off if they’re moving. I’m pushing for phones that don’t work when they’re moving.’’

A defense lawyer has not yet been assigned to the juvenile court case, according to court records.

The accident is prompting new calls for people to put down their phones and other electronic devices while driving, coming from police officials to victims’ relatives to readers posting online responses to the Norwalk accident story.

“We tried to convey just how this incident illustrates how dangerous it is to be distracted while driving a 3,500-pound vehicle 35 to 40 miles per hour,’’ Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling said. “You need to focus all your attention on what you’re doing. It only takes a second to swerve a few feet. Everybody should look at this and learn from it.’’

Connecticut is among 31 states and Washington, D.C., that ban all cellphone use by novice drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Thirty-eight states ban texting while driving, with Ohio poised to become the 39th after a proposed ban that Governor John Kasich has promised to sign received final legislative approval Tuesday.

Nearly 5,500 people across the country were killed in crashes involving driver distraction in 2009 and another 448,000 people were injured, according to the latest figures analyzed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Sixteen percent of all fatal accidents that year involved reports of distracted driving, and teenage drivers were more likely than those in other age groups to be involved in a fatal crash where distraction is reported, the agency says.

The girl accused of killing Kenneth Dorsey could face up to six months in jail on the negligent homicide charge if convicted, Rilling said.

The charge of using a cellphone under age 18 while driving carries a 30-day license suspension and $175 in license restoration and court fees for a first offense, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Leo Dorsey, 67, a retired credit union manager, said he hopes the girl receives a severe penalty, but there is something more important than the outcome of her case.

“I want her not to forget what she did through stupidity,’’ he said. “I just don’t want to see Kenneth forgotten. I hope that her punishment is that she doesn’t forget. And maybe she passes that on to her friends and down the road to her own family.’’

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