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Video a chilling reminder of multiple dangers facing pedestrians, cyclists

Sometimes there are things better not seen. Watching the death of Anchorage cyclist Eldridge Griffith was one of those things, and now it haunts me.

The collision that killed the 65-year-old cyclist was caught on videotape by a surveillance camera outside the Carrs gas station on Northern Lights Boulevard in January. Anchorage authorities only revealed the existence of the tape earlier this month when Assistant District Attorney Daniel Shorey sent a six-page memorandum to the Anchorage Police Department detailing why prosecutors decided not to bring charges against the driver who struck Griffith.

The video, Shorey wrote in that memorandum, does not indicate motorist Ti Justice was driving erratically, though it does indicate he was speeding. Justice may have been going as fast as 46 mph on a roadway posted at 35 mph, Shorey said, but "I do not believe that such speed is far enough removed from the speed other drivers maintain on that stretch of road to represent either reckless driving or excessive speeding."

Shorey and I talked at length about the video after he wrote the memo. I never doubted his description of what was on it but in the belief that the late President Ronald Reagan was right with his suggestion to "trust but verify," I felt compelled to get a copy and watch for myself.

Now, I'm sorry that I did.

The tape shows a snowy and sloppy January day in Anchorage. At about 3 p.m., a car pulls out of the post office driveway on the north side of Northern Lights and crosses the street to the Carrs driveway on the south side of the boulevard.

Then Griffith appears at the intersection. The tape is shot from some distance and Griffith is a small figure in the upper left corner but it appears that he looks to his left to check traffic before following the path of the car that went before him.

At that point, the boulevard appears safely clear of traffic for several hundred feet east of Griffith.

It appears OK to cross. It appears Griffith is acting rationally when he pedals out into the street.

Then another car exists the post office driveway. It passes Griffith on the left and swings wide around in front of him. It is impossible to tell from the tape whether that car cutting Griffith off slows his progress or not.

By then, two cars have appeared in the tape, going west on Northern Lights. The one in the lane nearest the post office is going one speed; the one in the lane to the left of it is moving far faster. That is the car Justice is driving.

Justice's vehicle first appears behind the car in the far right lane, passes it and then quickly begins to open a gap of one car length, then two, then more. It is still accelerating past the other car when it hits Griffith and his body goes airborne.

Shorey believes the car looping around Griffith hid the cyclist from the view of Justice, and that the driver did not see the cyclist until impact.

It is hard to argue with that assessment. It is even harder to argue with Shorey's belief that it would be near impossible to get a jury to convict Justice of any sort of crime.

Griffith made a mistake of judgment when he entered the street. It is an easy thing to do if you are a cyclist or pedestrian in Anchorage. You need to treat motor vehicles like they're trying to kill you, because if you don't, they just might.

Whether Justice's view of Griffith was shielded or not really doesn't matter, either, because the reality of life in this city is that a lot of drivers just aren't paying much attention to their driving. It could be that Justice couldn't see Griffith because he was hidden. It could be that Justice didn't see Griffith because he wasn't looking.

It happens every day.

And then there is this:

"Justice described driving westbound on Northern Lights when the car to his immediate right stopped suddenly,'' Shorey wrote. "Justice said he struck the victim but neither saw the victim nor had an opportunity to stop.

"Justice described his medical conditions, prescribed medications and use of marijuana. Justice told police he smoked marijuana the night before going to bed at 10 p.m. and denied using marijuana after 10 p.m.

"The drug testing revealed Justice had smoked marijuana that day,'' the day the accident happened.

Did the marijuana in his system slow his reaction time and play a role in what happened? No one knows.

But it never became an issue in the case because, as Shorey wrote in the memo, "Alaska (unlike other states like Washington, Montana and Nevada) lacks a … DUI statute for THC levels in a driver's blood. In other words, the mere presence of THC will not automatically lead to a conviction for DUI. Instead, the evidence as a whole, including blood tests, erratic driving, and roadside sobriety test results, must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person was impaired."

Justice was not give a roadside sobriety test because he is handicapped. It is Shorey's belief that the lack of such a test coupled with the lack of evidence of erratic driving renders moot the THC in Justice's blood.

Perhaps Alaska should follow of the lead of Washington, Montana and Nevada and set a standard for THC as it does for alcohol. But the Alaska Peace Officers Association doesn't seem to think that necessary unless voters decide to make marijuana legal in a vote next month.

The APOA, in an op-ed appearing recently in Alaska Dispatch News, warned that if marijuana is made legal there will be some costs of implementation, and "Alaska would also have to construct laws addressing a presumptive level of marijuana deemed to cause a driver to be impaired as well as an approved method of determining that level. Because marijuana metabolizes differently than alcohol in the body, this may lead to more legal challenges of impairment."

Shouldn't the state construct such a law whether the imitative passes or not? We have a law against driving drunk. We have a law against texting while driving. Why isn't there a law establishing just how stoned you can be when driving?

Marijuana-impaired drivers are already on the road. They are every bit as real as those who are drunk or preoccupied with their smartphones or even eating their drive-in, take-out meal.

And all of those things are what make the Eldridge video haunting. When you watch it, you realize Justice could have been any driver on any street in Anchorage driving a little too fast and not paying attention for any of the reasons drivers don't pay attention. Hundreds of such drivers are on the road every day.

If you ride or walk in this city, you have to take that into account. You have to expect the unexpected and act accordingly. Griffith didn't, and in the blink of an eye he paid with his life.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.