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Placer DA, courts put two highly charged fatal distracted-driving cases under microscope

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The Placer County District Attorney’s Office is now focusing on two high-profile, distracted-driving crashes that left three people dead. After more than a year, the trial of a 56-year-old Chicago Park woman on a charge of vehicular manslaughter in the death of Nevada County cyclist Jim Rogers near Colfax is scheduled to start May 9 in Placer County Superior Court. And three weeks after a head-on Foresthill Road collision that killed Marla McArron, 74, of Davis, and Richard Tanner, 78, of Foresthill, a California Highway Patrol report on the investigation into possible texting while driving by 25-year-old Foresthill resident Billy Keller has been submitted to the District Attorney’s Office. Art Campos, spokesman for the office, said that prosecutors are currently reviewing the report. Movement in the legal arena on the two cases comes as the CHP and other law-enforcement agencies crack down on distracted driving and educate the public about its ramifications. The CHP initiated a statewide distracted-driving campaign Monday and results for the first two-day enforcement blitz shows 220 tickets written for illegal hand-held cell-phone use in vehicles on roads patrolled by the Valley Division. The division includes the Auburn area but there was no breakdown on results from more localized patrol areas, such as Placer County. The CHP Valley Division issued 12 citations for texting while driving and a dozen tickets for other distracted driving violations, including weaving, impeding traffic and failure to stop at a red light. Highway Patrol officers also gave 53 verbal warnings. The CHP campaign comes two months after Rogers’ widow launched her own public awareness effort to deter people from texting or using their handheld cell phones while driving. In early February, Carolyn Rogers joined family and friends to place a sign just south of Oakhurst Lane on Highway 174 between Colfax and Grass Valley to remind drivers to slow down. It’s part of the active role she has taken on with Bicyclists Against Distracted Driving and includes handing out stickers that say “Remembering Jim Rogers – Save Lives” and are sized for placing on cell phones. The District Attorney’s Office policy is to not discuss pending cases and the CHP has released minimal information about the investigation into the Foresthill Road crash, other than to say it revolves around Keller’s actions and possible driver inattentiveness. Rogers, an avid cyclist who qualified as an alternate Olympian in the 1980s on the U.S. team, was struck and killed while riding on Highway 174. He was struck from behind by the Ford Explorer Hernandez was driving. According to witnesses, Hernandez said she didn’t see Rogers as she came up behind him. In the Foresthill Road crash, Keller’s car collided head-on with the car McArron and Tanner were in. McArron and Tanner family members posted on the Journal website that Keller’s cell phone was confiscated by authorities at the crash scene and it contained information indicating he had been texting while driving before the accident. They have since declined to talk with the Journal, citing a request from the CHP. According to the CHP, drivers who use handheld devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. During its campaign – which highlights the $159 in fines drivers face for their first distracted driving ticket and resumes this coming Tuesday – the CHP is also citing studies it says show that texting while driving can delay a driver’s reaction time just as severely as having a blood-alcohol content of a legally drunk driver. The campaign will also boost enforcement efforts on April 26.