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Bigger danger at crossings

Special to The Times

On Oct. 27, 14-year-old Cindy Gallegos was on her way to school and Olimpia Ordunez, 27, was heading to work when they were both struck and killed by SUVs in separate incidents during a blustery rainstorm in Orange County.

Both were hit as they attempted to cross intersections in south Orange County. Both of the SUV drivers told police they didn’t see the pedestrians until it was too late.

If you read The Times’ news story on the fatalities, you saw that law enforcement authorities said the accidents could probably be blamed on the heavy rains that made it difficult for the drivers to see the pedestrians.

At the time, neither of the drivers were cited, with the accidents still under investigation.

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I was baffled. So was reader David Weaver, who wrote a letter to the editor saying that the news report left him with the “impression that the ‘heavy downpour’ and the one victim’s gray clothing were valid excuses for the drivers not seeing them in the street.”

I agree. Since when can heavy rain or the inability to see smaller objects -- in this case, people -- in front of the hood of your massive vehicle become an excuse for hitting a pedestrian?

Weaver, of San Juan Capistrano, also noted that “California law holds the driver responsible for maintaining a safe speed under the prevailing conditions.”

Since then, Laguna Beach police have asked the Orange County district attorney’s office to charge driver Louise Mantoth, 82, of Dana Point with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in the death of Ordunez, the mother of two young children. The DA’s office has not decided whether to charge Mantoth, whose 2002 Chevy Tahoe struck Ordunez as she was attempting to cross Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach.

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Ordunez had the right of way in the crosswalk, which was illuminated by lights on the road as well as above the crosswalk, Laguna Beach Traffic Sgt. Jason Kravetz said.

Mantoth told police she never saw Ordunez or her sister, Yolanda Zainos, 36, in the crosswalk. Kravetz said there were no skid marks. Police did not seek felony vehicular manslaughter charges because witnesses said Mantoth was not speeding.

Ordunez suffered a skull fracture and was airlifted to UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, where she died. Zainos suffered head and neck injuries.

In the death of Gallegos, a freshman at Dana Point High School, Orange County sheriff’s deputies have not sought charges against driver Eric Vinciguerra, 42, of Laguna Hills, according to sheriff’s spokesman Jim Amormino. A lack of evidence and witnesses has prevented deputies from determining exactly what happened.

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“It appears the girl may have run into the street against the light,” Amormino says.

Vinciguerra was driving a 1996 Chevy Suburban when he struck the girl in a crosswalk on Moulton Parkway in Laguna Niguel about 7 a.m. He told deputies he had the right of way on a green light and did not see her in time to avoid hitting her. He also said he was traveling about 5 mph below the 50 mph speed limit, Amormino says. The impact of the accident threw the girl’s body more than 200 feet.

Although Moulton Parkway is generally a busy road, no witnesses have come forward. A woman who was walking her dog stopped to give the teenager CPR, but Amormino said the woman did not see what happened.

The accident is still under investigation, but without witnesses or photos from a red-light camera, it is difficult to determine what happened, he said.

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The deaths underscore not only the seriousness of pedestrian safety, but also the difficulty in assigning blame. In 2003, there were 712 pedestrians killed and 13,991 injured in traffic accidents in California, according to CHP data. Of those who died, 97 ranged from infants to 18-year-olds.

“What’s happening in some communities is that cars are crowding out pedestrians’ ability to walk and feel a sense of safety,” says Roger Gray, co-founder of Pasadena Walks, an advocacy group for safer streets and walking environments. “Too many automobiles are killing pedestrians. Drivers have the burden to keep an eye out for pedestrians.”

“It’s not fun to try to cross six lanes of traffic that is going 50 mph,” Gray says.

The size of SUVs and trucks also makes them more difficult to brake in time to avoid hitting a pedestrian, he says. Additionally, your risk of being killed or seriously injured is higher when hit by a 6,000-pound SUV than a 2,000-pound vehicle, he notes.

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Inclement weather obviously can impair a driver’s vision. But bad weather calls for drivers to be especially alert behind the wheel. Reducing speed, making sure your lights are on and watching out for children and others stepping off curbs or trying to cross busy streets are paramount when navigating through stormy weather.

Certainly, pedestrians have to behave responsibly, also. Darting into traffic, ignoring stoplights or walking along the side of the road day or night are all dangerous behaviors.

Jeanne Wright can be reached at jean.rite@aol.com.


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