Steller: In Tucson, lives of walkers, cyclists are cheap

2013-10-13T00:00:00Z 2013-10-16T13:22:22Z Steller: In Tucson, lives of walkers, cyclists are cheapTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

You can kill a 7-year-old in a crosswalk and never sniff a jail cell.

You can drift into the bike lane, smash a couple of cyclists and end up paying a $1,000 fine.

This year, and especially in the last couple of weeks, the harsh reality of life on Tucson’s streets is becoming clear.

Drivers have killed 14 pedestrians in Tucson this year, compared with six through the same time last year. A driver struck another walker Friday night at East 22nd Street and South Wilmot Road, leaving the pedestrian with life-threatening injuries.

Around the area, drivers are also regularly slamming cyclists into the pavement, though the number of deaths in Tucson is just two so far this year, same as last year.

Recent cases suggest a wave of distracted driving is responsible.

None is more heart-rending than that of Simon Foster, 7, whose father, Don, took him and his sister, Charlie, 5, to dinner at McDonald’s at East Speedway and North Alvernon Way the evening of Sept. 29. Afterward, as they were crossing Speedway, on a green light and in the crosswalk, a driver simply turned right and plowed into them, police reports say.

That driver, 31-year-old Saylee Solo, is facing a misdemeanor charge that, at the outside, could land her in jail for 30 days. More likely, she’ll be fined and have her license suspended for a couple of months.

Solo did not answer my call, but Simon’s mother, Laura Withrow, said police told her that Solo was looking west down Speedway for oncoming traffic when she turned east and struck the trio.

“I’m very upset about it,” Withrow told me through tears Friday. “I just don’t think it’s fair. For her lack of paying attention, my son had to lose his life.”

That’s the nub of the difficult legal problem. Inattention by drivers of multithousand-pound missiles is killing and maiming walkers and bikers around Tucson week after week, month after month. But because the drivers aren’t drunk, or street racing or doing something else despicable, they escape with relatively mild consequences.

I don’t know that turning distracted killers into felons is the answer, but you have to wonder why we care so much about how a driver got to the point of destroying lives. Isn’t the destruction itself the real problem?

Brendan Lyons was stewing over this issue Friday when I met him in his hospital room at University of Arizona Medical Center. Lyons and his girlfriend, Lorena Evans, were riding their bicycles on East Sunrise Drive toward Sabino Canyon Oct. 5 when a driver drifted up behind them and rammed Lyons, who collided with Evans, sending them both to the hospital with serious injuries.

Why that driver, 19-year-old Jamal Qusim, struck them was unclear, but he was cited for failing to stay in his lane and for seriously injuring a bicyclist while failing to allow at least three feet of passing room. The maximum fine for that violation is $1,000.

The lack of significant consequences bothers Lyons.

When a driver is “distracted by a cellphone — that’s a deadly weapon, same as having an alcoholic beverage in your system,” Lyons, a Rural Metro firefighter, said, noting he doesn’t know why Qusim struck him.

But the laws, or at the least the prosecutors, don’t see it the way Lyons does.

Bruce Chalk, who for 14 years prosecuted vehicular crimes in the Pima County Attorney’s Office, explained to me Friday that common negligence — looking down at your radio or cellphone — is usually not enough to justify a felony charge under Arizona law. Normally some kind of aggravating behavior such as reckless driving, excessive speed or intoxication is required before prosecutors will charge a driver with a felony.

“It’s a question, not so much of what the end of the thing was, but what was the (driver’s) state of mind when it occurred,” Chalk said.

That may be so in vehicular cases, but there are plenty of other cases where it is the outcome, not the process leading to it, that makes a crime serious. What about when a gang-banger is showing a gun to his friends and accidentally shoots one of them? Will prosecutors treat that as an accident or be more interested in the outcome?

A Tucson attorney who frequently represents bicyclists, Eric Post, says Arizona’s laws are OK — the greater problem is our car-centric culture and how that influences the officers who enforce the laws. A typical example, Post said, is the bicyclist who is crossing a street in the crosswalk but is hit by a turning vehicle.

If the officer cites anyone, it will be the bicyclist, for riding on the sidewalk before getting to the crosswalk, he said.

The basic message, Post said: “It was OK to run over a human being in the crosswalk.”

That’s a faulty message, whether the human is on a bike or on two feet.

“Drivers are supposed to be looking at what’s in front of them, and most drivers should be able to stop for a pedestrian whether they’re in the crosswalk or not,” Post said.

Yes, bicyclists are supposed to ride in the street, to the right. Yes, pedestrians are supposed to cross the street at crosswalks or intersections.

But, no, their failure to do so does not absolve drivers from their responsibility to see and avoid them.

Yet, after a pedestrian is struck by a vehicle, Tucson police time and again put out press releases that in effect blame the victim by saying he or she “was not in a crosswalk” or “wearing dark clothing” at night.

Jean Gorman, whose son died after being struck by a driver on the Catalina Highway in 1999, watched this happen in her son’s case and then noticed the pattern as it repeated over and over.

“I found that if a person has been killed, they’re usually the ones that are blamed,” she said. “You blame the dead guy.”

Yes, bicyclists and pedestrians sometimes behave badly — Lyons and other cyclists told me they understand that good roadway behavior is required of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists alike. Yet drivers in Tucson are notoriously sensitive and outraged about the minor inconvenience that walkers and especially bicyclists pose.

But we drivers — and I am one of them, not a particularly attentive one — need to look more closely at ourselves. We’re the ones steering our multiton life-wreckers down the road at 50 while looking down to tap out “LOL” on our phones.

If we can’t be counted on to drive responsibly — and we prove day after day that we can’t — then the police and prosecutors need to hold us responsible with something more than a misdemeanor or a minor fine.

If that takes new laws, making it easier for prosecutors to charge drivers with a felony such as negligent homicide, or mandating jail time for distracted-driver killings, then so be it.

Otherwise, as experience is showing us, we’ll keep on killing and shrugging our shoulders.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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