Northland teen charged with texting while driving in fatal crash

In what is believed to be the first case of its kind in the Kansas City area, and perhaps in Missouri, prosecutors charged a 16-year-old Northland girl Thursday with texting while driving and causing a traffic crash that killed a 72-year-old woman.

Prosecutors used the texting allegation to add a much more serious charge — second-degree involuntary manslaughter — against Rachel Gannon, whom a judge certified this week to stand trial as an adult.

According to court records, Gannon was texting, looking at her phone and listening to loud music when she lost control of her vehicle in September and slammed into a car driven by Loretta Larimer, a great-grandmother from Camden Point who had pulled off the Kansas City, North road into grass in an attempt to avoid the out-of-control vehicle headed her way.

The manslaughter charge alleges that Gannon demonstrated “criminal negligence” by losing control by texting while driving.

Gannon also is charged with third-degree assault for injuries suffered by Larimer’s 10-year-old granddaughter, who was riding in Larimer’s back seat, and she is charged with violating the 2009 Missouri law that prohibits motorists 21 or younger from text-messaging.

“Driving requires total concentration, and to put lives at risk to respond to a usually irrelevant text is reckless, irresponsible and criminal,” said John Larimer, the victim’s son, who said he thinks that all school driver’s education classes should include information about the dangers of distracted driving.

The case prompted Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd, who filed the charges, to call Thursday for the Missouri General Assembly to prohibit texting while driving for all drivers, regardless of age. Bills calling for such a law have been introduced in Missouri in recent years, but none has passed.

“We know from many different research studies that texting while driving is at least as dangerous as driving while drunk, and may be even more dangerous,” Zahnd said Thursday. “For that reason, I believe it should be illegal for anyone to text while they are driving.”

Gannon, who posted a $5,000 bond, was required to surrender her driver’s license as a bond condition.

“This is a tragic case for all involved, including Rachel, who is a good kid,” said her attorney, Brian Gaddy.

Because the case is pending, Gaddy said he could not comment further.

If convicted of the manslaughter charge, Gannon faces up to four years in prison. She faces up to one year in jail on the assault charge, and a $200 fine if convicted of texting while driving.

According to court records:

Gannon was driving a neighbor’s Honda Pilot north in the 12200 block of Northwest Skyview Road when the wreck happened about 3 p.m. Sept. 26.

Larimer, who had to be cut from her Nissan Altima, was pronounced dead at a hospital. Her granddaughter suffered a chipped arm bone, hurt neck and numerous bruises.

At the scene, Gannon told police she was looking at her phone when she lost control, according to the records. As she attempted to regain control, the vehicle slid across the roadway and into Larimer’s car.

A 15-year-old passenger from Gannon’s vehicle told police that Gannon was texting and looking at her phone and had the music “turned up too loud.” He noticed Gannon was going off the road and into the grass and said, “Rachel!” Gannon dropped her phone and tried to steer back onto the road, the witness said.

According to Larimer’s granddaughter, Larimer saw the vehicle coming at them, said “Aaah,” and swerved off the road into the ditch. Police determined that Larimer’s car was near a complete stop when the Pilot struck it. The road did not have a shoulder.

Missouri lawmakers passed the texting ban in 2009, but efforts to expand it to include all ages have gone nowhere.

State Sen. Bill Stouffer, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the bill introduced originally in the Senate had no age restrictions but was amended in the House.

Subsequent efforts to expand the law to include all ages have been filibustered, he said.

Rob Reynolds, executive director of FocusDriven, a national group established in 2009 to advocate for cell-phone-free driving, said such prosecutions related to deaths caused by distracted drivers are “highly unusual.”

“It’s a bold move by the prosecutor,” he said.

Zahnd and several other prosecutors around the state said Thursday they were unaware of any similar prosecutions.

Reynolds, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed by a distracted driver in 2007, said his group is trying to educate people about the reality of how dangerous distracted driving is.

Studies show that the risk for drunken driving and distracted driving are the same, he said.

“What we’re talking about with distracted driving is we’re talking about impairment,” Reynolds said. “If a driver has a cell phone in their hand, or they’re texting or looking at the Internet, that driver is impaired.”

Crash statistics compiled by the Missouri Highway Patrol list a driver’s cell phone use as a factor in 1,837 traffic crashes last year. Of those, 587 resulted in injuries and 11 involved fatalities.

Since 2006, the patrol says, 79 people have died in Missouri crashes involving drivers distracted by cell phone usage.