Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Distracted driving's most stark example

Otherwise-glowing citizen facing jail due to awful habit

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Mahmud Ali is an unlikely criminal.

A loving and devoted husband and father, Ali, 48, has none of the usual precursors often associated with offenders, such as a history of violence, gang involvement or drug and alcohol abuse.

Regardless, Ali is now a criminal staring down a lengthy stint in jail for the first time in his life.

He was convicted of dangerous driving causing bodily harm.

All because of a 46-second phone call he made while driving a van that caused him to crash and injure two pedestrians, one of them seriously.

Seen in light of all the circumstances of Ali's personal background and case, one thing sticks out like a sore thumb.

I could be in his shoes. So could you, or someone you love dearly.

All of this over a stupid cellphone and the inability to see how dangerous they are to use while driving.

If there was a case I've seen over the years that truly put the perils of distracted driving into focus, it's Ali's.

'Reflecting on the details of this day still causes me to become stressed and emotional'

-- Shaun McDonald

Yes, there's the facts of his dangerous driving to consider first.

He ran a red at Portage Avenue and Maryland Street -- a busy intersection -- in the middle of a bright, summer day in June 2012.

He wasn't speeding, but his van was bumped as a driver pulled away on the green light to head east on Portage. She couldn't see him because her view was blocked.

That collision caused Ali's van to skid sideways, then roll over after bashing the curb and hitting two pedestrians poised to cross the street.

Doug Litwin managed to push his nephew, Shaun McDonald, back onto the curb to safety before being struck by Ali's careening vehicle.

"I became convinced that he saved my life," McDonald said in a victim-impact statement read in court this week at Ali's sentencing.

McDonald suffered minor injuries, but his real trauma came from seeing his uncle badly hurt and laid up in hospital for days.

"Reflecting on the details of this day still causes me to become stressed and emotional," McDonald wrote.

Almost immediately after finishing reading McDonald's statement, prosecutor Renee Lagimodiere told Ali's sentencing judge about the alarming results of a recent survey.

Ninety-nine per cent of 7,000 respondents told CAA Manitoba they continue to see people talking and texting on their phones -- four years after Manitoba outlawed it.

Distracted driving is the No. 1 road-safety concern on people's minds, said Lagimodiere.

She's asking for Ali to spend a year in jail. "The consequences of his actions were severe," she said.

It's true there was nothing deliberate about what Ali did. He never intended to hurt anyone.

"It is an accident," said Frank Johnston, Ali's lawyer. "At no time did he intend to cause the harm the accident resulted in."

That may be so, but the fact remains, it happened.

A court, after a trial, found Ali was on his phone and that contributed to the dangerousness of his conduct.

Now, he's "seeking forgiveness" from Judge Janice leMaistre and expressed sorrow toward Litwin and McDonald for what happened, a pre-sentencing report says.

Born and raised in a Somalian village, Ali is no stranger to hardship. As a child, he carried baskets of bananas on his head to earn money to get by.

He says he largely "raised himself for the most part... and as such, he always controlled himself and did not allow himself to be put in a vulnerable position," says the report.

His eldest son described Ali as his "icon... he could not ask for a better father." The son also says his dad has numerous friends and is a good adviser.

A skilled and hard-working mechanic since the age of 15, Ali has struggled with employment since coming to Canada with family in 2009 because of a language barrier.

A close friend glowingly describes him as "reliable and trustworthy," a man active in his community "who seeks to help others."

These show Ali has character.

Jail will likely do nothing to deter him, as he's clearly already been deterred through the fallout from what happened and his prosecution.

But the issue leMaistre's impending sentence will ultimately speak to is: will jailing Mahmud Ali deter others from using their cellphones while driving?

We've seen over and over the tragic effects of distracted driving. Ali's case is just one sad example. Clearly, our habits haven't changed because of this.

And I suspect that even if Ali is jailed and that message gets out loud and clear to the public -- they still won't.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 A9


Updated on Saturday, July 26, 2014 at 8:47 AM CDT: Changed subheading.

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