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Questions surround Anchorage cyclist fatalities

Craig Medred
Marc Lester

As Anchorage residents pedaled toward their jobs and offices on Wednesday -- official Bike to Work Day in Alaska's largest city -- local prosecutors were considering whether to bring charges against a motorist who hit a cyclist on Northern Lights Boulevard last winter.

And the circumstances surrounding the death of another cyclist killed in a collision with an automobile three years ago are being questioned as the matter heads toward trial in a Anchorage Superior Court.

The Anchorage Police Department, in 2011, ruled the late William Curry Jr. was to blame for the accident that killed him on April 5 near the intersection of Tudor Road and C Street. But Curry's sister, Shannie Lamar, has a different view and is pushing a wrongful death suit against Melinda Talaro, the 59-year-old woman behind the wheel of the 1997 Toyota Camry that struck Curry.

After Curry died pinned beneath her car, police quickly concluded the 36-year-old cyclist, who regularly pedaled to his job at GCI in south Anchorage "entered (an) intersection against the red light, which he had, and was struck by Talaro.

"Curry's phone was equipped with a GPS tracking unit and after reviewing the data it was determined his direction of travel was eastbound in the westbound lanes. Mr. Curry was not riding on the sidewalk but instead was traveling on the roadway. Municipal Code requires cyclists who ride on the roadway to observe and obey the rules applicable to motor vehicles."

Police took only about two weeks to conclude Curry was at fault. The investigation into the January death of 65-year-old Eldridge Griffith has now dragged on for more than six months.

APD spokeswoman Jennifer Castro this week, for the first time, identified the driver of the car that hit Griffith as Tj Justice, a longtime Anchorage resident.

The 59-year-old Justice, who legally changed his name from Timothy J. to Tj in 2002, won a settlement of nearly $1.5 million against Humana Hospital-Alaska (now Alaska Regional Hospital) almost 30 years ago in a malpractice suit that was reported to have left him "partially paralyzed."

Prosecutors say now there are questions as to whether he should have been driving.

Gustaf Olson, the violent unit supervising attorney in the Anchorage office of the Alaska Department of Law, said on Friday that APD investigators are still working with an "accident reconstruction specialist" to establish the circumstances leading up to Eldridge being hit.

"We're pretty close to making a charging decision," added Clint Campion, the deputy district attorney for Anchorage. It is possible, he said, Justice could face charges of negligent homicide or manslaughter. Justice could not be reached Friday.

Questions raised in Curry case

In the Curry case, Lamar's attorneys have raised questions about a police investigation that concluded Curry was riding in the roadway prior to the accident and that he ran a red light. APD detective Richard Steiding, in a deposition taken by Lamar attorney Tom Gingras, called GPS data "the ultimate evidence" that Curry was in the road and not on an adjacent bike path.

But experts on GPS say data from Curry's phone is not accurate enough to determine with certainty he was riding in the roadway.

Meanwhile, the conclusion that Curry ran a red light, according to Steiding's deposition, came from an unnamed witness outside the Cattle Company restaurant across the street from the accident who heard something, but saw nothing.

"He had actually heard the collision and looked up, made an observation that the traffic signal had been green for north and southbound, didn't see any east or west traffic," Steiding said.

Steiding offered no estimate of how much time might have passed between when the witness heard something and looked up to see the light green. Time is a key issue in the case because it appears Curry may have died not from the impact of the collision, but from being dragged some distance beneath Talaro's car.

Immediately after the accident, police told Anchorage television station KTUU "Curry was possibly in the crosswalk when he was caught underneath the Camry, then dragged about 60 feet before the car stopped. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

"According to police, being dragged for long distances is not uncommon in vehicle- cyclist collisions," the TV station reported.

"The stimulus of, 'Oh my goodness, I just hit someone' processes its way through," said APD Sgt. Glen Daily. "By the time it gets through from your head to your foot to go from the accelerator to the brake, you might have two, three seconds before she came to a full stop."

Expert witnesses on bike-vehicle collisions contacted by Alaska Dispatch agreed with Daily's conclusion that it is not unusual for motorists making right turns on red lights at intersections to be wholly focused on traffic to their left and run over cyclists or pedestrians without ever realizing what has happened.

"Sixty feet to kind of figure out what is going on and then stop is kind of common," said Kirby Beck, a former Minnesota policeman and a nationally recognized expert on bike safety and cycling. When the Tudor-C Street collision was outlined to Beck during a phone interview, he did not think it sounded like a case of someone striking a cyclist who was in the act of speeding through a red light on his bike.

"It's unusual," he said.

Over or under the vehicle?

Anchorage resident Dohn Wood, a former bike shop owner who has been called as an expert witness in other bike-vehicle cases, was more blunt.

"He (Curry) should have gone right over the top of the car," Wood said, if Curry was speeding through the intersection on his bike when hit by the car.

A rider ending up beneath the car is more consistent with a bike being pushed over than a bike being struck at speed. But, he added, bicycle-motor vehicle accidents can be hard to sort out. What happens, he said, depends so much on the speed of the bike and its direction of turn, especially in intersections.

If the bike is stopped or moving at a very slow speed, he said, it is more likely to get pushed over and then go under the car than if it is speeding into the intersection at faster-than-walking speed. But, he added, "if you're swerving to try to get away from something," the lean of the bike could also put it at an angle that it would be more likely to make it go under the car than fly onto the hood or even over the car.

The accident that killed Curry happened around midnight. Police reported Talaro was driving south on C Street and making a right turn onto Tudor. Curry approached that intersection, according to the police version of the events, from Talaro's right. Police concluded he was on the roadway instead of the adjacent bike path because of the GPS data and the fact the bike path didn't look all that rideable.

"The bike path was covered with mud and chunks of snow and ice the night of the collision," Steiding said. "There was also a huge puddle where the bike lane should have been."

Curry, police added, was riding a bike lit up with lights both front and back and wearing a helmet. The impact of the accident does not appear to have been particularly violent.

When paramedics and police reached Curry, Steiding said in his deposition, he "had on a large backpack, gloves and was still wearing his glasses."

There was "a black scuff mark on the front fender of Ms. Talaro's vehicle" that the detective said came from "the tire of the bicycle." And there were, Steiding said, "impressions" of Curry's clothing on the ground at the scene of the accident.

"They're fabric impressions that are left in the dust and on the vehicle itself as (Curry) travels under the vehicle," Steiding said. "We had photos of them actually under the vehicle so we'd know he was there."

Background of APD investigators

The Steiding deposition raised questions about the qualification of APD's accident investigation team. Steiding said much of his training to investigate accidents came from "16 years in (the) motion picture industry in California. The last several years, I was driving a camera car so I was actually filming, what's considered second unit work. And we did a lot of the chase scenes ... a lot of the car crashes, things of that nature. So I was actually involved in a lot of cars that were crashing that were being filmed."

Asked specifically if he'd been trained to investigate bicycle accidents similar to that involving Curry, Steiding said, "I have not been to the actual vehicle-bicycle course."

"OK. How about the vehicle-pedestrian course?" Gingras asked.

"No. It's ... they're kind of lumped together," Steiding said.

"OK. And I know that some people involved in the accident reconstruction world have this certification from ACTAR (Accreditation Commission for Traffic Accident Reconstruction)," the attorney continued. He then asked Steiding if he had taken the courses necessary to obtain that certification.

"I have not," Steiding said. "Until the department will pay for it, I'm not willing to."

Beck, an expert in these sorts of investigations, said bike-motor vehicle accidents are often complicated because bikes behave differently than cars when hit by a motor vehicle. APD traffic investigator Steve Dunn, not Steiding, is the officer investigating the Jan. 2 death of cyclist Griffith on Northern Lights. Castro said Steiding is no longer with the traffic division.

Mark Mew took over the job of chief of the APD about a year before Curry was killed. Mew is an avid cyclist. Wood noted APD has in the past been criticized for failing to take seriously enough collisions between motor vehicles and cyclists. Mew has said his department is committed to enforcing traffic laws that lead to death or serious injury no matter what sorts of vehicles are involved.

Impact knocked victim's boots off

The 65-year-old Griffith, a retired youth counselor and avid cyclist, was hit by a gray Subaru near the Carrs Shopping Center on Minnesota Drive on a Thursday afternoon in early January.

At the time of the accident, Castro told media outlets Griffith "was crossing (Northern Lights) southbound and was struck in the middle lane of traffic."

The statement was widely repeated though it was inconsistent with what witnesses who arrived on the scene just after the accident said and with KTUU videotape of the accident scene taken at the time of the mishap. KTUU video shows Griffith's boots, which were knocked off his feet by the impact, in the road near the curb on the north side of Northern Lights. His bike is even farther to the north -- in the snow on the far side of a sidewalk that runs parallel to the road.

A witness who arrived on the scene just after the accident told Alaska Dispatch the bike was thrown there by the force of the collision. The glass on the passenger side of the Subaru's windshield was smashed from the impact of Griffith's body. Bicyclists who knew Griffith and were familiar with his route along Northern Lights speculate he was riding west on the far right side of the road when hit.

In the winter, they said, cyclists often use a short stretch of the road along Northern Lights because a car wash near the Minnesota Drive intersection leaves the bike-pedestrian path coated with ice and slippery. Whether police investigated ice as a contributing factor in the accident remains unknown.

Prosecution of a motorist for killing a cyclist is rare in Alaska. Authorities in North Pole, a community near Fairbanks, in 2012 refused to prosecute the driver of a truck who ran over a 13-year-old and killed him. The boy was on a sidewalk and got in the way of the truck as it turned into a gas station.

An Anchorage prosecutor in 2008 told a grand jury he couldn't prosecute a motorist who ran a red light and killed a 19-year-old cyclist in the state's largest city. It "is not a criminal case from the state's perspective," he said. "This would be a civil liability case. You have a red light violation."

The grand jury did eventually vote to indict the woman on manslaughter charges based on police finding THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in her blood. But when a judge tossed the marijuana evidence as illegally obtained, the state dropped the case.

Safer than automobiles

Mew arrived as police chief two years after that incident. He has said police are doing everything they can to make the streets as safe as possible for cyclists and declared in a commentary that ran on Alaska Dispatch the city is actually a pretty safe place to ride a bike.

That claim is backed by data. The Alaska cyclist death rate of 1.37 per million people each year is significantly below the national average of 2.31 per million and about half the 2.56 rate for supposedly bike-friendly Oregon, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In fact, as scary as cycling might sometimes look in the 49th state, it's actually much safer -- at least statistically -- than travel by motor vehicle. The state death rate for motor vehicles is about 119 per million people.

Reach Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.

 


By CRAIG MEDRED
craig@alaskadispatch.com