If you were on your cell phone, would you notice a homicidal maniac waving a .45 caliber pistol in the air? Dozens of passengers on a San Francisco train did not. Video cameras revealed that almost all the passengers had their eyes glued to the glowing screens in the hands and had headsets on their ears.
Video cameras revealed that, in their midst, a thirty-year-old man was playing with a gun. The man was repeatedly drawing his gun and pointing it down the aisle. After half a dozen times of this, the man put a bullet into a younger man exiting the bus. The killer then exited the vehicle himself.
The next day, police arrested Nikhom Thephakaysone as the alleged suspect. They also identified the victim as Justin Valdez. Prosecutors are lucky the entire incident was caught on camera, since it is questionable whether any of the passengers on board the bus could be called witnesses. In order to serve as a witness, a person must have personal knowledge of the event and be able to recall that knowledge. Thephakaysone’s attorney could bar almost all of the passengers from testifying in court since the only thing the passengers witnessed was a loud “bang” and Valdez’s body.
The fact that humans can only focus on one task or event at a time is well documented. There is a YouTube video which explains the problem of human awareness in an entertaining manner. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.
The goal of the test is to spot the moon walking bear even though you’re focused on the ball being passed. It is the same problem in real life. You’re totally focused on the YouTube video in your hand that you don’t see the car changing into your lane. As a result, most states have passed laws restricting the use of phones while driving. However, the danger from distracted driving isn’t that the driver is trying to multitask and failing; the danger is that the drivers are not paying attention to what is taking place around them.
Failure to pay attention to our surroundings is hardly restricted to driving. A 2008 study revealed that pedestrian cell phone users were more likely to miss traffic signs. In 2010, statistics came out that about 1,500 pedestrians were injured because they were too focused on their phones rather than the world around them. The pedestrian accidents reported in 2010 ranged from the expected, such as being hit by a car, to the Saturday morning cartoon, such as falling into an open manhole or falling into a fountain.
At first glance, the legal implications of inattentive citizens were limited to personal injury accidents. Cell phones created more automobile and pedestrian accidents, as described above, but they also barred those same accident victims from winning court battles. Contributory negligence and comparative negligence limit the amount of money these accident victims could collect since it is extremely easy for the other side to point out that the “victims” were negligent themselves. It is difficult to win a negligence lawsuit if you ignored all the warning signs on your way towards the open manhole.
Until this year, few experts would have believed that the problem of distracted people would apply to criminal law as well. It does though, and it appears that the problem of distracted people applies in the worst way imaginable.
Prosecutors were lucky that there was a video camera available. If this murder had taken place in a location without video cameras, such as a busy street, it is doubtful that the prosecution would have enough evidence to even identify the killer. The lesson here is clear: Don’t be so focused on your smartphone that you can’t see Freddy Krueger until he stabs you in the chest. Everyone around you will be too busy with their cell phones to notice.