When Is Enough, Enough?

As I worked on the daily “Today’s Headlines” roundup for this morning, there were three items I wanted to pull because they paint an ugly picture about what’s going on in our streets.

Ed Magos is left bleeding in the street next to his mangled bicycle as Angelina Everett speeds off.  Emely Aleman and Angela Rodriguez are thrown 50 feet after being hit by a Jeep Wrangler.   Moran Biton strikes and kills Conor Lynch in Sherman Oaks with a burgundy SUV.

The particulars of each case are different, but the outcome for the drivers are the same.  None will be charged with a felony, and it’s unlikely that any will face jail time.  Everett, Biton and the still anonymous killer of Aleman will face misdemeanor charges, as though they were caught shoplifting a candy bar, not maiming a fellow human being.  And some people wonder why the term “accident” is offensive when applied to these preventable, deadly, crashes.

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In some ways, the Magos/Everett case is the most concerning even though Magos was not killed and Everett faces sentencing tomorrow.  Originally, neither the District Attorney or City Attorney was interested in prosecuting a clear hit and run until the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition drew attention to the case.  Tomorrow, the LACBC will be hosting its third, and hopefully final, “ride for justice” as they head to Everett’s sentencing.  You can get the details of the ride, and the trial, by visiting the LACBC’s blog here.

While the Bike Coalition deserves credit for bringing attention to Magos’ case, they probably aren’t capable of bringing attention to every bike crash in the city.  In other words, we need a change in the way that C.A.’s and D.A.’s look at these cases and more incentive for going after reckless and dangerous drivers.

Taking a more meta view of enforcement issues is Bikeside, who in addition to pushing for clearer thinking from police and prosecutors also wants changes in the law.  In the Streetsblog comments section, even LAPD Sgt. David Krumer voiced admiration for their Life Before License Campaign which seeks to change state law for hit and run crashes to make the penalties fit the crime.  As the law is written now, if a driver hits another road user and was drinking, the best thing he or she could do for themselves is run from the scene.  Hit and Run laws are actually more lenient than drunk driving laws.  Thus, the worst thing a drunk driver could do for themselves is stay at the scene.

That being said, there is no evidence that Biton, Everett or the person who killed Aleman and crippled Rodriguez were drinking.  But we do know that both Everett and Biton fled the scene.

Conor Lynch.  Photo provided by LA Now.
Conor Lynch. Photo provided by LA Now.

In Biton’s case, the crime is even more egregious.  Biton, an unlicensed driver at the time, hit Conor Lynch while he crossed the street in the middle of the block.  Biton drove for four blocks before telling an officer in a parked car that “I think I hit someone.”  She will not be charged with a felony because, as reported in the Times:

Biton was arrested later on suspicion of leaving the scene of an accident. But county prosecutors said that there was no evidence for a felony filing because Biton contacted police and did not conceal any details of the case.

The law is so tilted towards protecting unsafe drivers that an unlicensed driver can hit someone, leave them lying in the street, confess to the police that she’s not sure if she hit (much less killed) someone and face a maximum of a year in jail.  Clearly these laws need to be changed.  Yet, there is almost no inertia in Sacramento for such laws to be changed.

Emely Aleman.  Photo from ##http://www.facebook.com/people/Brianna-Trimboli/100000557888342#!/pages/Emely-Aleman-Memorial/159371870765804?v=wall##The Emely Aleman Memorial/Facebook##
Emely Aleman. Photo from ##http://www.facebook.com/people/Brianna-Trimboli/100000557888342#!/pages/Emely-Aleman-Memorial/159371870765804?v=wall##The Emely Aleman Memorial/Facebook##

All of the road design in the world wouldn’t have protected Lynch from an unlicensed, oblivious driver; but it might have saved Aleman and Rodriguez.  In the much-publicized crash in the Valley, the two were crossing the street in an un-signalized crosswalk when they were run down by a yet-unnamed driver who, to his or her credit, stayed at the scene until the police arrived.  The community has focused their anger at the city for not installing a traffic light as they requested after another fatal crash last December.

Indeed, what truly Livable cities need is support for cyclists and pedestrians at all level of governments.  In these cases we see sub-par conditions and roadways, ambivalent police officers, lenient laws and prosecuters that can’t be bothered.  No one campaign can fix all of this, a true citizen’s revolt is what’s really needed.

But as people lay dead and dieing in the street and their killers speed away, as deadly crosswalks are left un-fixed nearly a year after a man is run down, as prosecutors look for excuses not to charge people that kill with their car; those that want to live in a city that caters to people, not their cars, are left to wonder: When is enough, enough?  What will it take before the safety revolution truly comes?

  • Addressing this issue using the criminal justice system is inappropriate, and is a political nonstarter.

    What needs to occur is a change in state law that makes the penalties for hit-and-run align with the penalties for drunk driving/driving under the influence.

    Additionally, any collision with another human being/tree/post/house should be grounds for permanent revocation of a driver’s license., or at least a lengthy suspension of driving privileges.

    Finally, we need to ask our legislature to amend the method for assigning liability in a crash between a bicyclist or a pedestrian. Unless a car is at a dead stop, the driver of an automobile should face at minimum a fine, suspension of a driver’s license, and jail time.

    Bikeside’s got a Life Before License campaign to address the gap between DUI and hit-and-run penalties that all but ensure a drunk or impaired driver will leave the scene.

    The other two legislative ideas will need to be developed into a more formal campaign.

    If we were given a government (or think tank) prepared regular reports on the specifics of crashes and casualties in LA, we’d have the biggest weapon possible to pursue all of these changes: facts.

  • Spokker

    “Unless a car is at a dead stop, the driver of an automobile should face at minimum a fine, suspension of a driver’s license, and jail time.”

    This borders on extremism. Drivers should only face charges when there is a clear case of negligence. Pedestrians and cyclists make mistakes too, and if I’m driving the speed limit and hit a jaywalker who enjoys wearing all black clothing at night in the rain, I’m not exactly sure I should be sent to prison.

  • roadblock

    From my experience the I believe the exact core of the issue is going to be extremely difficult to solve. That core issue is jury trials and witness testimony… It goes like this….

    Let us say that Hit and Run laws are enhanced to match or even exceed the penalty for drunk driving. Let us say that the laws call for the automatic suspension of a driver’s license and let us even add mandatory jail time…

    While I do believe that upping the punishment SHOULD be a priority, doing so still leaves a huge hurdle and that is proving that a certain person was actually driving the vehicle to actually bring to justice. The fact is that in most hit and run cases the victim and witnesses have difficulty in getting plate numbers let alone a description of the driver and it is the description of that driver that is the crucial piece of evidence that a prosecutor needs to get a jury to convict. After all, it’s hard to get a description of a driver while laying on the pavement dazed and bleeding… Witnesses are notorious for not paying attention to such details when witnessing a crash after-all, by the time people realize that a driver is running they’ve been focused on the body of the victim and cant provide a detailed description of the driver nor can they be expected to accurately pick someone out via a six pack line up consisting of driver’s license photos.

    As the penalties increase so will the vigor of people defending against said punishments. At the end of the day prosecutors will still offer easy plea bargains because it will all come down to defense asking the victim and witnesses “did you see the defendant driving the car that night” and more often than not, the victim will say no and so will witnesses making it impossible for a jury to convict.

    I can’t see a way out of the witness problem other than to engineer our way out of the situation by creating a comprehensive system that includes safe street design, strict liability laws, well funded investigative units and last but not least, universal healthcare…

  • roadblock

    @spokker strict liability actually makes perfect sense… If you are driving a 4000 pound machine, you need to take extra care how you operate that machine. We already have a system like this in our workplaces… If you are driving the forklift and you dump over a bunch of product, your boss is going to blame you regardless of the circumstances because the number one goal is to be careful not to destroy the product. This incentive keeps warehouse workers who operate heavy equipment honest lest they get fired. It can work to keep operators of heavy equipment on our public streets honest too lest they lose their license.

    Right now today, as we speak, strict liability is at work in the Netherlands keeping their streets safe and it hard to game the system because the system is comprehensively designed to weed out fraudsters.

  • Brent

    @Roadblock: I believe strict liability in the Netherlands is an insurance issue, and does not speak to the driver’s criminal liability. I agree that we need better laws, but better infrastructure will do more.

  • Erik G.

    Once Aleman was declared dead, the driver of the Jeep was identified:

    “The driver of the Wrangler — identified Thursday by Valley Traffic officials as Ian Thomas Leiner, 23, of Sherman Oaks…”

    http://www.dailynews.com/ci_16526338?IADID

  • Erik G.
  • joe

    plain and simple, if your car was used in a hit and run, it gets taken and crushed just like street racers cars do. Unless you the owner can provide proof of who the diver was during the accident. Period.

    Caught hit and run drivers should be given the same exact penalty as if they caused the accident while drunk.

    If you hit somebody, and your not drunk, stick around to prove it from the cops otherwise will assume you were intoxicated.

  • I’m with Roadblock, and I think we need to “engineer our way out of this”, but we need some accountability to show that there is a problem in the first place.

    Though traffic is counted (barely) in LA, and reported crashes do get submitted to a central statewide database (SWITRS), it is vanishingly rare that citizens or other interested parties are handed fully digested reports about traffic safety in their region, neighborhood, etc.

    Fundamental to any legal and engineering changes is a public airing of the effects of our current system.

    If there is no crisis, then there will be no push to find a solution. We have to have a set of solutions ready to go once the crisis has been established, but things have to get to a full media onslaught level of fear and paranoia about crashes and safety first. To get there, we’ll need several things:

    – Stories that report crashes in terms that Streetsblog doea (i.e. “accident” is now “crash”, victims are personally identified and the impact to their bodies and lives are given more attention as is the state of the streets). These will take on the role that kidnapping and robbery stories have on evening news and newspaper reports during slow news days, if the story is given enough attention by those reporting on it.

    – Think-tank analysis of hazardous places to drive, walk, bicycle in LA. Online maps.

    – Awareness raising rides and events (die-ins, solidarity rides, etc.), perhaps more regular fundraisers for a fund that helps cyclists and pedestrians injured in crashes (i.e. a set of people with a professional stake in publicizing the issue and collecting money in its name)

    – Courtroom coverage, and analysis of proceedings, of car crash cases.

  • roadblock

    @Brent strict liability can cover both criminal and civil liability…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strict_liability

  • Zach Behrens

    I was involved in a hit and run in 2005. I was crossing Valencia Blvd. at Citrus in Santa Clarita as a pedestrian legally — the walk sign was lit — when I was hit by a driver making a left turn. It came from behind me and I rolled over the hood to the other side of the car. I got up, looked at her and told her to pull over — instead, she gunned it.

    Luckily, I got her license plate and the police were waiting for her when she got home. She was elderly and apparently told an officer she was confused (I did hear, but it was unconfirmed, that her license would be taken away because of her age and the incident).

    The D.A.’s office never prosecuted her. My employer, the City of Santa Clarita — I was walking between the city hall staff parking lot and city hall — never did anything either, although I’m not sure if they could do anything about it.

    Thankfully, I was not physically hurt in any of this. Since that day, I’ve never crossed a street the same. I’m always looking behind me.

  • KateNonymous
  • roadblock

    The biggest issue to overcome in our system is convincing a jury that the defendant is the one behind the wheel. Without the ablility to provide strong proof of a driver’s identity, the strictest laws on earth will only do so much to encourage a driver to stay and face a drunk driving charge.

  • Brent

    @Roadblock: Yes, strict liability as a concept can apply to criminal and civil issues. But I believe the Dutch strict liability laws address only whose insurance pays when a driver and cyclist collide, and not whether the the driver is criminally at fault. For most legal purposes, of course, criminal behavior requires some form of intent.

  • roadblock

    @Ubrayj is there any effin way to get a report based on a street? Let’s say I want to get a report of number of crashes that occurred on a stretch of street? Where can I get that info?

  • anty

    In an effort to keep track of news reports of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities Los Angeles, I recently started a tumblr. There is something about seeing the stories lined up one after the other. I may expand it to include non-fatal injuries as well. http://losangelesroadfatalities.tumblr.com/

  • @Roadblock Well, there is the Statewide Traffic blah blah blah (SWITRS). Long story short, no you can’t. Not because the data doesn’t exist, but because nobody in either the government, or in the non-profit, or advocacy, or press, or general public has cared enough or had the resources and skills to prepare such a database.

    As a result, the most basic information about our streets (how many injured and killed?) is hard to find.

    Anyone got any clues?

  • Katie M.

    @roadblock: you can call the PD and ask for a crash report, cities do track that info. They will probably make you pay for it. If that bugs you, you might be able to convince someone in your councilmember’s office to get it for you for free.

    Try here: http://www.lapdonline.org/inside_the_lapd/content_basic_view/6423

  • I’m going to throw my dumb idea into this.

    I strongly believe that automobile manufacturers should be held responsible for the damage their ‘products’ do. If there is a slight chance an automobile might cause harm to the driver, there is a massive recall, but the obvious harm done to others is never addressed.

    How can you build a car less dangerous to other road users? Make it lighter. Make it smaller. Make it slower. All these attributes reduce the other major harms automobiles are responsible for as well, noise pollution, air pollution, street livability. Consumers should demand that these products are designed to take into account the safety of all road users.

    I find the issue similar to firearms. The argument that guns don’t kill people, people do, has a charm to it, but assault rifles are still considered inappropriate belongings for civilized people. Inappropriately sized trucks, race-cars and military vehicles are all used as passenger vehicles in the city.

    Ultimately, there will be errors, and the vehicles will strike bicyclists and pedestrians. What we can do to make these collisions less fatal is to reduce the speed and the mass of the objects in the collision.

    Again, there is absolutely no reason why a person needs a vehicle weighing 2-tons or more just to move their body around. Cyclists know this is insanely inefficient and obviously dangerous. I place responsibility in the hands of the manufacturers who build, market, and release these machines onto our streets in the name of transportation.

  • Erik G.

    @Aaron:

    The 3-ton SUV is illegal in most of greater Los Angeles, and yet you will not find any politician with the balls to enforce laws already on the books:

    “Well, here’s a surprising piece of news. It may not be. Cities throughout California—the nation’s largest car market—prohibit the heaviest SUVs on many of their residential roads. The problem is, they don’t seem to know they’ve done it.

    I discovered this secret ban after noticing the signs at both ends of my narrow Los Angeles-area street (a favorite cut-through route for drivers hoping to avoid tie-ups on bigger roads). The signs clearly prohibit vehicles over 6,000 pounds.”

    http://www.slate.com/id/2104755/

    Of course one can go on and on about SUVs:

    http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/huffington/2003/01/08/suv
    http://www.salon.com/news/1997/12/08news.html

  • la rider

    No matter what, it will always be cars vs those that are not in cars.

    Rule #1 If you hit anybody claim that you did not see them.
    Rule #2 Make sure that sunlight was in your eyes.
    Rule #3 Always leave the scene if you were drinking and driving.
    Rule #4 Blame the pedestrian of bike rider. They swerved or appeared out of nowhere.
    Rule #5 Never hit another car because you might actually have to take responsibility.
    Rule #6 If you hit somebody and they are on the hood, then do not leave the scene while pushing the body off the hood.
    Rule #7 If you do get caught leaving the scene and there was more than one person, claim that you were scared of a mob riot.

    Follow these rules and you should never have any problems while driving.

    Just remember, don’t hurt anybody in another car because the rules change drastically and are not in your favor anymore.

  • Thanks Damien for raising this issue and everyone for your comments.

  • Cases involving unlicensed drivers are especially egregious. Being unlicensed, or having a suspended license, means the DMV determined the driver was not qualified to operate a motor vehicle. Thus, any “accident” involving unlicensed driver is — by definition — not an accident.

  • la rider

    If your drunk and you kill somebody. Leave your Bentley running go home and sleep it off, then turn yourself in and follow the normal rules of denial. You will walk away with at most 90 days of probation or house arrest.

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