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Use of laptop investigated as cause of fatal crash

The device was found plugged into the vehicle that drifted into an oncoming Hummer

February 27, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld -

Investigators are trying to determine whether a 29-year-old computer tutor who died in a California highway car collision might have been using his laptop while driving just moments before drifting into an oncoming Hummer.

The victim, Oscar Hinojosa of Chico, Calif., was killed in the crash, which occurred at 8:30 a.m. Monday on Highway 99 near Yuba City, according to the California Highway Patrol.

After the crash, investigators discovered that the man's laptop was still on and plugged into the cigarette lighter. The screen was cracked, and the laptop was found resting on the right front floorboard, said CHP spokesman Sgt. John Pettigrew.

Hinojosa's 1991 Honda Accord collided with a 2003 Hummer. The occupants of that vehicle, both age 39, were taken to a nearby hospital and treated for minor injuries, he said. The Honda drifted into the oncoming lane, and both vehicles were destroyed in the resulting head-on collision.

"We are still investigating whether he was using the computer or not," Pettigrew said. The couple in the Hummer did not see Hinojosa using the laptop, but investigators will try to find witnesses who might have seen him using it before the crash and will investigate the laptop itself, he added.

Possibly, an application could have been running or even a wireless broadband connection, which would indicate that he might have been using the laptop, if not actually touching it, Pettigrew said. An LED light was on when the laptop was found, which could mean that the computer was being charged or possibly used.

"I've seen drivers actually typing on their laptops while driving," Pettigrew said. "This is California, where financial investors use handhelds to look up stock reports while driving and where women will put on their makeup while holding the steering wheel with their knees."

The official cause of the crash is still listed as "unknown," although there are some other signs Hinojosa might have been working on the laptop or possibly looking at it, Pettigrew added. The road was straight and level, and he didn't appear to have fallen asleep. Investigators found no signs of alcohol, although results of an autopsy have not been released.

The collision occurred on Highway 99 near Obanion Road, about 30 miles north of Sacramento. The Honda was traveling north on Highway 99 at an unknown speed, while the Hummer was traveling southbound on the highway at about 55 mph. Conditions at the time were cloudy, wet and windy, although not dark, investigators said.

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