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Texting drivers involved in serious and fatal crashes get 'slap on the wrist,' say victims' families

By Sarah Koch, Deirdre Cohen and Nina Tyler
Rock Center

Dave Muslovski’s family could not have been more proud. The 55-year-old businessman was determined to lose 100 pounds as he neared retirement, and he wound up blowing right past that goal.

“Nine miles every morning and nine miles every night.  Eighteen miles a day, and in nine months, [he] lost 165 pounds,” said a beaming Tina Yanssens,  Muslovski’s daughter.

But one morning in 2010, when Muslovski was on his morning walk along a highway near Youngstown, Ohio, he was hit by 19-year-old driver Whitney Yaeger. Muslovski was rushed to the hospital, but he died from severe internal injuries later that day.

A week later, the family learned the cause of the accident that killed Muslovski: texting and driving.

“[W]e got a phone call from the local media, wanting our response to the fact that the young girl had just admitted that she was texting and driving.  And quite frankly, we hadn't known up to that point. We just assumed that it was a standard traffic accident,” said Yanssens.

Go behind the wheel of a texting and driving simulation

Yaeger said she hadn’t seen Muslovski walking in his reflective gear that morning because she took her eyes off the road to look at her cell phone for a full 10 seconds. Texting and driving was not against the law in Ohio at the time, and Yaeger was charged with misdemeanor vehicular homicide. She was sentenced to just 45 days in jail.

At her sentencing Yaeger sobbed as she told the court, “I realize the severity of the incident and I think about the victim’s families pain everyday. I would do everything in my power to do that morning over.”

Yaeger declined NBC News’ request for an interview.  In a letter to NBC News, Yaeger’s lawyer, John Juhasz, noted that she is speaking to schools about the dangers of texting and driving, not only because the judge ordered it, but also because she wants to prevent other similar accidents.

The family was devastated by Yaeger’s sentence and lobbied to help bring about a change to Ohio’s laws. In Ohio, a new law banning texting and driving went into effect in August 2012. Texting while driving is now illegal for all drivers in 39 states, including Ohio but many experts say the laws don't go nearly far enough.

“People are getting a slap on the wrist for this,” said Jennifer Smith, an advocate for laws against texting and driving. “And who knows how many cases we don’t even know about because people aren’t admitting it and we’re not checking the cell phone records.”

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Smith and other advocates argue that texting and driving--like drinking and driving--is a dangerous choice and should be punished more severely.

“In drunk driving cases you see normal sentences anywhere from two to 15 years and up. With texting and driving, you can see virtually no punishment, to a few days in jail, up to 30 days,” Smith said. “And in a few cases there's been one, two years.”

Research suggests that texting while driving is six to eight times as dangerous as drunk driving.

“If driving drunk is a 400 percent increase in crash risk texting's been shown to be possibly a 2,300 percent increase in crash risk,” Kansas University cognitive psychology professor Paul Atchley said. “You have to have your hands on a device and not on the wheel. You have to have your eyes off of the road and on this device. And you have to think about it because speaking, constructing speech even though you're typing it out, is a hard thing for the brain to do.”

Muslovski’s daughter echoes that sentiment.

“It [texting and driving vs. drunk driving] has the same end result, but the consequences are so very different because our legislation hasn't caught up with the technology,” Yanssens said.

Muslovski’s wife, Denise, says it is still difficult to face the reality that her husband of 36 years is no longer here.

“It did not need to be.  Just keep your eyes on the road, your hands on the wheel,” she said.  “He lost his life.  He didn't deserve that. He worked hard every day of his life, planning for a wonderful retirement that he never had the chance to have, not one day.  My life is forever changed.”

Go behind the wheel of a texting and driving simulation

Editor’s Note: Tune into Rock Center with Brian Williams on Thursday, Jan. 10, at 10pm/9CDT for Kate Snow’s full report.