A man accused of fatally injuring a motorcyclist while he was speeding and texting is facing manslaughter charges in a case that could fuel efforts to ban texting while driving in South Dakota’s largest city.
Authorities say 21-year-old Brent O’Neal was driving 60 mph in a 30 mph zone and was texting on his cellphone when he caused a chain of accidents in central Sioux Falls on July 25.
O’Neal’s car hit three vehicles and Philip Sorensen’s motorcycle before crashing into a light pole. The 33-year-old Sorensen died later at a Sioux Falls hospital.
The death prompted a heart-rending outpouring as dozens of people gathered at the site of the accident for a candlelight observance. Friends tearfully described Sorensen as a fun-loving man who sought to make people laugh.
“He got robbed,” friend Nathan Alexander told the Argus Leader. “All of you should have known him. He brought a lot of people together.”
The death has underscored recent talk of banning texting while driving in Sioux Falls. Earlier this month, the city’s Public Services Committee endorsed a proposed distracted driving ordinance that would ban texting, emailing, tweeting and Facebook use while behind the wheel.
Leaders in other South Dakota cities have indicated they might follow Sioux Falls’ lead if the ban is adopted.
The South Dakota Legislature has rejected statewide bans in the last two years, saying that existing reckless driving laws make additional laws redundant. Some lawmakers have also said that it’s unrealistic to enforce a statewide ban in such a vast state with hundreds of miles of rural driving.
All drivers are prohibited from texting while driving in 39 states and Washington D.C., and five other states have bans in place for novice drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, a traffic safety advocacy group.
Police said Friday that O’Neal faces charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter. He was initially charged with felony hit and run and other offenses.
The most serious manslaughter charge carries a potential life imprisonment sentence.
O’Neal has a previous drunken driving conviction, six speeding tickets and four tickets for careless driving, authorities said.