No criminal charges for drivers who killed 3 cyclists
Deaths - A county prosecutor calls the cases the "intersection of events that just end in tragedy."
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
HOLLY DANKS The Oregonian
HILLSBORO -- Three bicyclists were doing nothing wrong when they were killed in recent months by Washington County motorists, but under Oregon law, the drivers did nothing criminal.
The Washington County district attorney's office announced Tuesday that a grand jury declined to indict Patricia Louise Suhrbier, 58, of Hillsboro in the May 29 deaths of Sheryl and Darrel McDaniel. The longtime cyclists, both wearing helmets and bright yellow jerseys, were struck while riding on the shoulder of Oregon 47 south of Forest Grove.
Prosecutors said the case involving the Aug. 5 death of bicyclist Michael J. Wilberding, 58, of Tigard was more clearcut and will not be presented to a grand jury. Wilberding, who was in a bike lane and wearing a helmet, died four days after being hit by a car driven by Aaron M. Hessel, 25, of Beaverton.
Suhrbier will be cited for careless driving, and Hessel will be cited for failing to yield the right-of-way to a bicyclist in a bike lane.
"Criminal prosecution in Oregon requires more than ordinary negligence," said Chris Quinn, the senior deputy district attorney who took the McDaniel case to the grand jury. "Simply because a death occurs does not in and of itself establish a higher level of culpability."
In California and Idaho, vehicular manslaughter is a misdemeanor involving simple negligence. Oregon has no vehicular homicide law, and a person must be found reckless or grossly negligent for a criminal conviction in a traffic death.
Bicycle groups are using the recent deaths as a rallying point and have lobbied for criminal charges.
"I think the laws are not strict enough for drivers who claim inattentiveness while driving," said Barbara Chapnick, an organizer with the Washington County Bicycle Transportation Coalition. "I think people ought to be charged more, not just given a small citation."
But Quinn called the cases the "intersection of events that just end in tragedy."
Police reports say Sheryl McDaniel, 61, was riding slightly behind and to the left of her husband, Darrel McDaniel, 65, northbound on the paved shoulder of Oregon 47 just north of Southwest Anderson Road. About 11:45 a.m. on a sunny day, Suhrbier's 2002 Saab, also northbound on the two-lane road, drifted 21 inches over the fog line and hit the two Hillsboro cyclists.
Suhrbier told police she did not know why she went off the highway.
Two months of investigation by the county's Crash Analysis Reconstruction Team determined that Suhrbier was going about 40 mph in a 55-mph zone, did not have a cell phone in her car and was not impaired by alcohol or drugs. She had no criminal history and had never received a traffic ticket.
"It appears to be a matter of momentary inattention," Quinn said.
But because visibility was good, the road was mostly straight, two people died and Suhrbier could not explain what happened, Quinn went to the grand jury on Friday.
"We thought the conduct was concerning enough that it was appropriate for a panel of citizens to listen to the evidence," he said.
Janelle Factora Wipper, deputy district attorney, said Tuesday that she decided against taking Hessel's case to a grand jury because the facts showed no criminal liability and the victim's family did not want the driver charged.
According to police reports, Hessel was traveling at a crawl and appropriately signaled his left turn off westbound Southwest Fifth Street onto Washington Avenue at 6:22 p.m. on Aug. 1. He was not impaired by alcohol or drugs -- but said he was blinded by the sun and didn't see Wilberding eastbound on Fifth.
"I'm not excusing him for not seeing the bicyclist, but in our society we are trained to look for other cars," said Officer Mark Hyde, spokesman for the Beaverton Police Department. "It would have been harder for him to explain not seeing a car than not seeing a bicyclist."