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$375K award illustrates distracted driving problem for police

Craig Medred
On July 15, 2010, Anchorage Police Officer Michael Wisel's cruiser T-boned Melvin Rush’s Chevrolet. On June 14, 2013, an Anchorage jury awarded $375,000 to Rush, who was seriously injured in the accident as a result of Wisel driving while distracted. Courtesy City of Anchorage

An Anchorage jury Friday awarded $375,000 to a serviceman seriously injured when his truck was T-boned by an Anchorage policeman who was driving while distracted.

Police tried to cover up the seriousness of the 2010 accident, said attorney Jim Valcarce, but photographs of the accident scene clearly showed patrolman Michael Wisel was driving at a considerable rate of speed when he ran a red light and slammed into Army helicopter pilot Melvin Rush’s Chevrolet.

An 11-year veteran of the Anchorage Police Department, Wisel was at the wheel of his police cruiser at the time. The lawyer representing him told a jury Wisel never saw the red light because he was looking at his in-car computer.

Police have denied any sort of cover-up, but a report during the trial last week indicated they may have been trying to use their authority as officers of the law to subtly influence the jury. “Wisel -- wearing his police uniform, gun and all -- watched in court as Valcarce questioned Rush about the wreck on July 15, 2010,” reported Anchorage Daily News reporter Casey Grove. Anchorage courts have entrance security with metal detectors. Only special members of society are allowed into the court building carrying weapons.

The city argued Rush, a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq, was simply the victim of an unfortunate accident while stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf- Richardson adjacent to the city and did not deserve compensation for his injuries.

Wisel was never cited for running the red light. The city, meanwhile, did pay to repair Rush’s truck and took care of his immediate medical bills. The police department then tried to walk away from the accident, Valcarce said.

“They offered him nothing, and then made an offer of $27,500 and refused to mediate,” Valcarce said Saturday. “Classic big government. It was a fight from day one.”

An attorney in Bethel, Valcarce said he took the case after a friend introduced him to Rush. He and his client asked for $500,000 in damages for Rush’s continued suffering from his injuries post-accident, along with $2.5 million in punitive damages.

Valcarce wanted the jury to send a message about distracted driving. At a deposition, he said, Wisel admitted to previously running a red light when distracted by his computer.

Valcarce said he also wanted to depose Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew on the subject, but was not allowed to do so. Wisel, in a video taken at the deposition, says it is often difficult to drive while using the electronic communication devices that have proliferated in police cars.

Police have 'head in sand'?

A 2011 study in Minnesota found that almost 15 percent of police-car crashes in that state from 2006 to 2010 involved distracted driving, and they were the most serious crashes.

Electronics, and their use in cars by both police and citizens, have made distracted driving a major national issue. Some states have banned the use of mobile phones in cars because of concerns that distracted drivers are as dangerous, or more so, than drunk drivers. Many states, Alaska included, have banned texting while driving as a dangerous distraction.

But if the electronics distracting the average driver are dangerous, they are almost nothing compared to those with which police officers must deal.

“Modern police cares are loaded with distractions: cell phones, a computer and license-plate scanners that are all contributing to more accidents involving officers,” NBC News reported in November. The NBC story highlighted a number of accidents eerily similar to that involving Wisel.

“Every police department who says they don’t have a problem with driving, distracted driving, or crashes has their head in sand,” Keith Wenzel, a national police trainer, told reporter Tom Costello of NBC.

The danger of distracted driving was well illustrated by “Car and Driver” magazine in a 2009 real world test. The magazine’s examination found it took drivers who were merely texting four-times as long, or longer, to hit the brake as an unimpaired driver in an emergency.

“Both socially and legally, drunk driving is completely unacceptable. Texting, on the other hand, is still in its formative period with respect to laws and opinion,” the magazine concluded.

Nobody seems to treat the danger seriously, the report added, noting that “most folks…think they’re pretty good drivers. Our results prove otherwise, at both city and highway speeds. The key element to driving safely is keeping your eyes and your mind on the road.”

Sending a message

Valcarce had hoped the jury would send Anchorage police a message in that regard, but it refused to award punitive damages. Alaska courts, like those elsewhere, are still wrestling with how to deal with the distracted-driver issue.

An Anchorage judge in October refused to accept a plea deal that would have sent a woman to prison for but a year for running down a pedestrian and killing him while driving distracted. Superior Court Judge Jack Smith told prosecutors they were letting 20-year-old Ashley Bashore off too easy.

Bashore was texting when she struck and killed 28-year-old Chefornak resident Hubert Tunuchuk along Tudor Road. Bashore in April of this year pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and ended up being sent to prison for 18 months.

Smith wasn’t happy with that, either, but said that even if he made the state take the case to trial “the ultimate sentence would still have to fall within the range of sentencing required by the legislature,” which was about the sentence Bashore got.

The difference between how drunk driving and distracted driving cases are handled in the 49th state is startling.

While Bashore was sentenced to 18 months for killing Tunuchuk, 22-year-old Tex Daniels from Chugiak went to jail for seven years for driving drunk when he ran into a Colorado couple who luckily survived the accident.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com