On September 15th, Kyle Warnick was tragically killed by a driver of a car while walking in the Kingsgate neighborhood in Kirkland. This month, the city of Kirkland has started releasing details from its investigation and joined the ranks of cities that apparently accept pedestrian death as a necessary side effect of transportation – even lowering the standard for negligence to an absurdly low level to avoid pressing charges.
It makes it hard to accept Kirkland’s claims of wanting to be a walkable city (or already being one, but that’s another discussion). It certainly makes any support of Target Zero seem like fluff. Washington adopted Target Zero is 2013, and Kirkland currently plans to do so in the 2035 Transportation Master Plan, but evidently it’s not important yet.
The facts of the case come from the Kirkland police report and the prosecutor’s note, and I have no reason to dispute them though of course can not vouch for them myself. More documents are forthcoming. The Kirkland case number is #14-43885.
Mr. Warnick was crossing eastbound on the south side of the intersection of 119th Pl NE and NE 144th St. The driver that took his life was turning left from 144th onto southbound 119th. She was stopped and simply accelerated into him. She said that she never saw him; her first indication was the collision itself. There were was another driver stopped facing north, and she assumed that this driver was waiting for her to go. (There was also another driver coming from the north but not relevant to the case other than being a witness.)
Although the neighborhood has made many complaints about speeding traffic and related issues, this intersection itself does not seem to be a problem. It’s a T intersection with an all-way stop. It has crosswalks all around and clear sight lines. Certainly it could be better with things like slower approaching traffic and raised crosswalks, but it doesn’t seem like a problem spot. It probably has the problem of drivers failing to stop, especially when they are using the neighborhood to bypass 405, but witnesses here said that this driver had stopped. So what went wrong?
After their investigation, which included experiments, the Kirkland police concluded that Mr. Warnick was hidden behind the “A” pillar of the car driven into him. He was in a blind spot. They also made a point to note that the car was moving at a speed below the posted 25 MPH speed limit.
The prosecutors then wrote that they don’t believe they would be able to prove negligence in the second degree, which requires (RCW 46.61.525(2)) “failure to exercise ordinary care” or “the failure to do something that a reasonably careful person would do”. I simply do not understand how the action of peeking around a car pillar (moving one’s head a few inches?) in order to look at one’s intended travel path can not be considered ordinary care. This was a completely avoidable tragedy. I also do not understand what responsibilities a driver actually has. It’s been joked (and not in a “ha ha” way) that as long as you don’t drink, don’t flee the scene, and (as is ever popular for the police and media to point out) cooperate with authorities, you can get away with anything. While this driver is most likely a generally responsible person, she wasn’t in this case, and she’s going to get away with killing Mr. Warnick.
The speed limit defense is rather weak here. Not having reached the speed limit before finishing a turn in an intersection hardly seems like evidence of full ordinary care. The addition of speeding presumably would have given the prosecutor enough to take the case, but it shouldn’t have been necessary. (For what it’s worth, in the police experiments, “moderate” acceleration led to a speed of 5-16 MPH, and the estimated collision speed was 14-19 MPH. It’s again not going to be proof of negligence, but it also doesn’t suggest an abundance of care.) The speed limit defense, in reality, is important because plowing through a pedestrian in a crosswalk apparently isn’t a crime by itself.
If the current law is indeed this weak, then there is essentially no legal incentive for anyone to exercise any care whatsoever when driving. This adds a new level of challenge to our infrastructure; it now must go beyond encouraging better driving patterns but instead defend against outright incompetence. This suggests what I previously would have considered a rather extreme set of tasks for Kirkland:
- Explain how one can safely walk around the city with legal protection
- Explain if and when drivers need to look where they are headed
- Lower all residential speed limits to 20mph. This will reduce the severity of injuries and the number of deaths. It will also increase the chance of actual prosecution in the case of a fatality. (This one should be done regardless of the strength of our laws.)
- Lobby the state to allow easier reductions of residential speed limits to 15mph
- Lobby the state for a change to negligence in the second degree to make it usable. This is also needed for the Vulnerable User Law to have any meaning since it depends on negligence in the second degree.
- Raise every crosswalk in the city
- Install traffic lights at every pedestrian crossing in the city and actually use them to separate cars and pedestrian flow patterns. This would require a driver to violate another law in order to hit a pedestrian in cases like this one where “failure to yield” is not enough for any real charges.
Is the full set realistic? No. But neither is Target Zero with our current attitudes.