The trucker accused of being on his phone when he plowed into a car stopped at a traffic light on a highway in Lake Elmo and killed that driver is due to make his first court appearance Friday.
Samuel W. Hicks, 28, was to have turned himself in to authorities Thursday night ahead of a 10:30 a.m. arraignment in Washington County District Court to face charges of criminal vehicular homicide in connection with the death of Robert J. Bursik.
Hicks, of Independence, Wis., was going 63 miles per hour and had been on his smartphone texting or using an app in the eight seconds before he slammed into the back of Bursik’s Toyota Scion, which was stopped at a red light on eastbound Hwy. 36 at Lake Elmo Avenue on Tuesday afternoon.
“Make no mistake about it, we believe this crash was caused because the driver of the semi was paying attention to his phone, looking at his phone rather than driving,” said Col. Matt Langer of the State Patrol. “Enough is enough. We see it to regularly, and Tuesday was another example of someone who was killed on our roads for no reason other than someone’s poor choice to make that phone more important than driving.”
Law enforcement has called distracted driving an epidemic that now leads to one out of every four crashes on Minnesota roads and an average of 65 deaths and 215 serious injuries a year.
Those numbers may be low as cases of distracted driving are hard to prove and since crashes often have more than one factor, authorities say.
But in this case, video from a camera inside Hicks’ cab provides “very strong evidence” that distraction was the cause of the crash that killed Bursik, a professor at North Hennepin Community College and owner of Dragonfly Gardens in his hometown of Amery, Wis., said Assistant Washington County Attorney Siv Yurichuk.
The camera had a split view, one showing the road ahead and another showing Hicks holding a phone in his right hand as he rolled along Hwy. 36.
“This is better than an eyewitness,” she said. “I don’t know if you get any better evidence of the documented act.”
In a criminal complaint outlining the charges, Hicks originally said he had seen a green light at Lake Elmo Avenue as he approached from a distance. He said he was distracted by another vehicle and turned to look before he hit Bursik.
But Langer said the “horrific” video shows Hicks made no effort to avoid the collision that was so violent that the rear end of Bursik’s car was pushed as far forward as the driver’s side door. The wreckage was so bad that it took hours cutting the Scion apart to get Bursik out.
Hicks later admitted he had been texting his girlfriend and using an app to check information about a house.
“He traveled 740 feet without regard,” Langer said. The video, he said, “is clear and difficult to dispute.”
The crash comes as advocates are pushing for new law to ban motorists from using hand held devices. A bill is set to be introduced at the State Capitol this session.
If Hicks, who has no criminal record, is convicted, he could get up to four years in prison, according to state sentencing guidelines.
But even with current or any new laws governing drivers’ phone use, the driving culture is what needs to change. People need to put the phone down and focus on driving, said Mike Hanson, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety.
“We are not going to enforce our way out of this problem,” Langer said. “We should not need a law to tell us to pay attention while driving. We should pay attention while driving because it is the right thing to do.”
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768