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Editorial: Distracted driving is an invitation to tragedy

One of the great menaces on our roadways is the distracted driver. The person looking at a phone, consulting a GPS device, loading a video or CD, or interacting with any of the entertainment systems that fill dashboards and car consoles.

We were reminded last week of the tragic toll that distracted driving can take when truck driver Kristofer Gregorek was sentenced to prison for 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years for the death of a University at Buffalo nursing professor. Gregorek got off too easy.

In June 2017, Gregorek was driving a truck 70 mph in a Thruway construction zone when he rear-ended a car driven by Ellen M. Volpe. She died at the scene.

Gregorek admitted to using his phone to buy a video game and fill out an online survey when the crash took place, between the Thruway’s Pembroke and Depew exits.

The truck driver, from Ballston Spa, pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter in February. At his sentencing in State Supreme Court he expressed great remorse, saying he was “pierced to the core” by the accident.

Volpe, who was 44, lived in Rochester with her husband and sons, who were 2 and 3 years old when she died.

“I can’t imagine what her children are going through,” Gregorek said. “I was blind to all the other lives around me.”

Was justice a little too blind when giving Gregorek a sentence that could get him out of prison before 2020?

Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Burns could have sentenced Gregorek to a maximum of five to 15 years in prison, according to Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn. Family members of Volpe, including her husband, John McIntyre, had written victim impact statements that said Volpe would not want “vengeance” against Gregorek.

Ms. Volpe is every bit as dead as she would be if she had been struck by a drunken driver, for whom the legal system generally shows less tolerance. A maximum sentence of 4½ years for Gregorek seems insufficient. In an unrelated case last week in Niagara Falls City Court, a teenager who threw a trash can off a parking ramp and caused injury to a passerby from Ohio was sentenced to 2 1/3 to seven years. The Ohio woman was traumatized, but at least she lived to tell about it.

In many ways, automobiles are safer than they have ever been, with “smart” features on new cars designed to steer them away from potential collisions. Still, the Department of Transportation estimated that 37,150 people died on U.S. roads in 2017, an increase of more than 10 percent since 2014. Electronic distractions are thought to play a big part in that.

Burns, the sentencing judge, called Gregorek’s case one of the saddest he’s ever come across.

“It’s sad for the loss of life, for the 44-year-old woman, but it’s also sad for this 28-year-old defendant,” he said.

There’s a temptation to sympathize with the truck driver because such an accident could happen to anyone. But that’s exactly why tough sentences are needed, to deter others from letting down their guard behind the wheel, a clear invitation to tragedy.

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