Wednesday, March 03, 2010

There are No Accidents!


(Blog post modified to reflect conflicting LAPD reports and updates. One LAPD source indicates the two motorists (in a Mercedes and a Toyota) were traveling south on Cliffwood Avenue and turning right on the red, hitting the young girl and then running over her. The second LAPD source indicates that the two motorists (is a SUV and an Infiniti) were traveling west on sunset Boulevard, clipping the young girl and then running over her.)

A 13-year-old girl attempting to catch her school bus began to cross Sunset Boulevard at Cliffwood Avenue. She stepped off the curb, into the crosswalk and against the red light just as two cars approached. She stepped from the NW corner of the intersection. The cars either came south on Cliffwood and turning right on Sunset or they came westbound on sunset. Either way, the first car grazed the young girl, knocking her to the ground. The second car ran her over. The young girl was transported to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.

LAPD West Traffic Captain Nancy Lauer is quoted by the LA Times as saying "It appears to be a horrible accident."

1) There are no accidents. The death of Julia Siegler was not the result of Mother Nature, it wasn't an act of God, there was no "force majeure" at work. This was a traffic collision, a horrendous event, a brutal incident, a circumstance with life-ending ramifications but it was in no way, shape, or form an accident. There are no accidents.

An accident is a determination. It is a ruling, it is the pronouncement that comes at the end of an investigation, it is not a word to be used casually at the scene of the crime. Oh, wait, was this the scene of a crime?

2) This was big news. The LA Times gave this story great coverage, not because a pedestrian died trying to cross Sunset Boulevard, but because the LAPD didn't know the identity of the motorists responsible for driving vehicles that ended the life of Julia Siegler. For most of the day, the LAPD were looking for hit-and-run motorists.

As is turns out, the two motorists stopped their cars on Sunset Boulevard and waited for the ambulance to transport the victim to the hospital. The young girl's mother was with her when she was hit and she initially responded by pounding on the hood of the first car with her fists and screaming, according to Commander Andy Smith of the LAPD. Of course Smith wasn't there when the incident happened and he wasn't there when the mother calmed down and told the motorists "It's not your fault." With her daughter gone and as the chaotic scene quieted down, the mother of the dead girl told the motorists they could leave.

The motorists left without offering their identification or contact information. They left without providing any insurance information. They left without contacting the LAPD. They left and went on with their business. They left what could be the scene of a crime. Even if the death of a pedestrian didn't make it a crime scene, it could very well become one when the motorists left without fulfilling their simple obligations to participate in the exchange of information and in the investigation of the tragic traffic collision that resulted in the death of a young girl.

But they both chose to accept the authority of a grieving mother who has just lost her daughter as enough to relieve them of any obligations under the California Vehicle Code. Apparently they both believed that a grieving mother had authority that trumps the laws of the land. Either that or they both simply didn't know the law and both lacked the simple common sense that would prompt them to consider it good form to chat with the local law enforcement folks. No matter how you slice it, it's simply unacceptable. Either way, their behavior was unacceptable and it resulted in the LAPD spending the best part of a day looking for them.

There were approximately two dozen witnesses at the scene who were interviewed by the LAPD as part of the investigation which was reported by the LAPD as being "a thorough investigation." Yet none of the witnesses and bystanders who came across the scene to offer assistance were able to offer the license plate information for the two motorists. Apparently everyone involved assumed that the identity of the motorists wasn't an issue, yet based on results, it was.

Will this result in the motorists being responsible for reimbursing the City of Los Angeles for the wasted LAPD investigative time? Loss of drivers license for demonstrating a complete failure to understand the responsibilities of a motorist involved in a traffic collision resulting in injury or death? Criminal charges for leaving the scene?  So far, none of the above. Capt. Lauer says, "At this point, we have not arrested nor have we booked either of the drivers. It appears to be a horrible accident."

3) This was unnecessary. It turns out, according to one LAPD source, that the first motorist hit the young girl with the side-view mirror of the car, knocking her to the ground. The second motorist then ran over the junior high school student as she lay on the ground, in the crosswalk.

Much can be made of the fact that the pedestrian was crossing against the red and, obviously, staying out of the crosswalk until the traffic signal indicates that is is safe to cross would be the simplest hindsight solution.

But in light of the fact that fully 20% of LA's parking meters are not functioning, it seems reasonable to ask if the demand actuated crosswalk signal control was actually functioning.

Further, the Fed Highway Administration (FHWA) recently released modifications to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) and included enhancements to the standards for signal timing in an effort to support the needs of pedestrians. It seems reasonable to take this time to review the timing of the crosswalk and to determine if this signal adequately supports the needs of pedestrians.

LAPD sources indicate speed was not an issue. It was. The vehicles were moving and if the first car made contact and the second car was unable to avoid running over the young girl, then they were traveling too fast and too close. Sunset Boulevard is posted for 35 mph, both sides are residential neighborhoods and there was a school bus waiting on South Cliffwood, all great reasons to require and expect the motorists using Sunset to travel at a reduced speed that allows them to control their vehicles. Based on results, often harsh but always fair, speed was an issue.

The school bus was parked on a street with no sidewalks. Pedestrians walk in the street to get to intersections, learning along the way that the streets are engineered and designed for motor vehicles first, humans second. It doesn't excuse bad behavior but it certainly explains it. Pedestrians learn quickly to navigate the environment based on their needs, not on the rules.

A young schoolgirl's enthusiasm for catching her school bus and her decision to cross the street against the red is a dramatic wake up call that should cause us to look at all of our intersections that serve as transit transfer points. How many people are making bad decisions based on the need to catch a bus that may be two signal phases away. Think of all of the busy intersections that would benefit from pedestrian phasing or all-walk phases. How many lives would be saved?

4) Call for action. The LAPD has been around long enough and has been in hot water hot enough to know that words matter. The word "accident" must be forbidden, stricken from the official vocabulary of the Los Angeles Police Department. It has a dehumanizing effect on tragic circumstances and it desensitizes the public to the tremendous loss of life on the streets of Los Angeles. For all of the talk of public safety, our streets are a battle field and people are dying with increasing regularity. To use the term "accident" is to normalize the loss of life in traffic tragedies and that is completely unacceptable. It also positions us as helpless and we are not helpless.

5) Call for action. Sunset Boulevard is posted at 35 miles per hour and the speed limit certification is valid through February 14, 2014 which means that for the next four years, the LAPD can use radar/laser speed limit enforcement for the 14 miles of Sunset Boulevard from the Beverly Hills city limits to PCH. Will that be popular? Probably not. Will it make cut-through traffic less effective and attractive? Possibly. Will the use of radar/laser speed limit enforcement make Sunset Boulevard a safer street? According to the LAPD and the LADOT, radar/laser speed limit enforcement is the most effective tool for controlling speeding motorists and for making the streets safer. This would be a great time to put that claim to the test and Sunset Boulevard would be the place to start.

6) Call for action. The LAPD must stop making excuses for people who get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, run over a human being, and then leave the scene of the incident. This incident must have been traumatic for everybody involved but especially the people throughout Los Angeles who are again reminded that motorists involved in traffic tragedies are free to leave the scene without identifying themselves and without fear of prosecution. Approximately one third of traffic collisions in Los Angeles result in a hit-and-run. Why? Because the LAPD accepts it, the City Attorney accepts it, the District Attorney accepts it, and worst of all, because the people of Los Angeles accept it.

1 comment:

Ross H. Hirsch said...

Good article. I comment only to post the full text of the CVC requiring the "mandatory exchange of information," CVC 16025, that seems to go so often ignored nowadays--and calling for necessary action to rewrite it.

Seems that it's a Code with no teeth--possibly because nobody knows it (because there's been so much ignoring it lately--unlikely), or the $250 infraction fine works not at all as a deterrent. And it's just about guaranteed that the city/county prosecutors will never prosecute it stand-alone but only as an add-on if and when other "more serious" crimes are committed. Seems it's just too enticing for road users to ignore it.

We should call for the Code to have teeth, a better enforcement mechanism, and severe penalties for the failure to comply AT THE SCENE--not to mention our Legislature's obvious boo-boo in calling traffic collisions "accidents" when that's not what they are.

CVC 16025 Mandatory Exchange of Information

(a) Every driver involved in the accident shall, unless rendered incapable, exchange with any other driver or property owner involved in the accident and present at the scene, all of the following information:
(1) Driver's name and current residence address, driver's license number, vehicle identification number, and current residence address of registered owner.

(2) Evidence of financial responsibility, as specified in Section 16020. If the financial responsibility of a person is a form of insurance, then that person shall supply the name and address of the insurance company and the number of the insurance policy .

(b) Any person failing to comply with all of the requirements of this section is guilty of an infraction punishable by a fine not to exceed two hundred fifty dollars ($250).