On average, 3000 people a year are killed on the highways in California — 33,000 nationwide — whereas only 6630 Americans have been killed in 14 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Plenty of outrage over the war on terror, as it’s called, but not a peep of protest out of sympathetic souls about the ongoing massacre on our fabulous highways and byways.
I haven’t owned a car since 1995, having broken my back in a crash on an icy bridge in Montana that year. My daughter wrote me off as a nutjob whenever I brought up vehicle dangers. Then, last April, her own daughter, 14, was killed in a car wreck, and her son 21, who was driving, received more injuries than he could have sustained from a roadside bomb in Iraq.
J.G. Ballard, a British author, is the only person to ever intelligently question the bloody insanity of the car culture in his novel Crash, and he is largely ignored. But we see it every day in the news: two young women from Mendocino killed last week, two more in Humboldt the week before — only one of these wrecks was caused by drinking and driving, so let’s face it: Driving a car is far and away more dangerous than going off to war.
All of which brings us to a young woman charged with a felony for, basically, driving. Gabriella Gallegos wasn’t drinking, she wasn’t doing drugs, she wasn’t texting or talking on her cellphone — none of the usual culprits we like to blame to reassure ourselves that spending most of our lives behind the wheel is a sensible and satisfying way to live.
Ms. Gallegos, in fact, is something of a model citizen. A student at Mendocino College, she has started her own business replanting logged over forests. She is intelligent, responsible and had a clean driving record — not even a parking ticket — prior to her present difficulties. How can this be, then? What went wrong? I think the honest reader will have to admit (albeit secretly) that he or she has come close, very close, to meeting death on the highway a time or two, and not always as a result of somebody else’s poor judgment.
CHP Officer Jake Slates investigated the wreck that Gallegos found herself in and concluded that she'd caused it by making “unsafe” lane changes. Interviewing witnesses, the officer learned that as soon as Ms. Gallegos’ Datsun sedan came onto the 101 Freeway at Lake Mendocino Drive, she had everyone’s attention. Sharon Ward was a couple of cars back and said the Datsun was changing lanes, going slightly faster — 5 or 10 mph faster than the flow of traffic.
Justin Petersen, Gallegos’ attorney, asked how far back Ms. Ward was. Officer Slates said his experience has been that most people are not very accurate at estimating distance, and he therefore hadn’t asked.
Petersen: “But there were two or three vehicles between her and the Datsun?”
Slates: “That’s correct.”
Petersen: “And she advised you that the Datsun merged first into the fast lane, then back into the slow lane?”
Slates: “That’s correct. Ms. Ward said she traveled to the fast lane and then into the slow lane.”
Petersen: “So in front of Ward there is an unknown vehicle in the slow lane; then the Datsun pulls into the fast lane; and then back in front of the unknown vehicle in the slow lane, correct?”
Slates: “Yes, that’s correct.”
Petersen: “And no problems, correct?”
Petersen: “Then my client merges back into the fast lane?”
Petersen: “And no problems there, either?”
Petersen: “So everybody — the witnesses — had to see everything from behind two vehicles?”
Petersen: “Then as the Datsun was passing the Toyota, Ms. Ward saw it suddenly slam into the Toyota?”
Petersen: “Did Ms. Ward describe to you any apparent reason the Datsun suddenly slammed into the Toyota?”
Slates: “The vehicle was changing lanes to get through traffic — it was a bad merge.”
Petersen: “Was that Ward’s statement — that it was a bad merge?”
Slates: “It was an unsafe lane change.”
Petersen considered the evasion briefly and moved on. It was Gallegos’ statement that the Toyota had crowded her off the freeway and onto the soft dirt of the median, which caused her to swerve back onto the roadway and hit the Toyota. Petersen hired an experienced traffic accident investigator from the Bay Area to go out to the scene and have a look, as Officer Slates hadn’t looked to see if this were true. The independent investigator found the tire tracks in the dirt at exactly the place where Gallegos said she’d been forced off the road.
Petersen: “As part of your investigation, Officer Slates, did you look at both vehicles?”
Petersen: “Were there any impressions on my client’s vehicle?”
Slates: “Yes, I’d call it tire rub marks.”
Petersen showed Slates a picture of the Datsun with the tire marks on it.”
Slates: “Yes, that’s it.”
Petersen: “And these marks were, you determined, caused by the Toyota Four-Runner?”
Petersen: “The marks were caused by the tires on the left side of the Toyota?”
Slates: “Yes, it would have to be the tires on the left, the driver’s side that caused the marks.”
Petersen: “But you don’t know whether it was caused by the front or the rear driver’s side tire?”
There was no way to determine whether the tire marks had been caused before the Datsun left the roadway or after it swerved back on and struck the Toyota. None of the witnesses had seen the Datsun go off the pavement.
Petersen: “Let’s talk about Jeff Moyer. His statement is that he sees the Datsun merging back and forth, correct?’
Petersen: “And he describes himself as being back behind a group of cars?”
Slates: “Yes, that’s correct.”
Petersen: “Do you recall which lane he was in?”
Slates: “No, as far as which lane he was in, I don’t recall.”
Petersen: “And his attention is focused on the Datsun?”
Petersen: “And he sees it rapidly swerve and hit the Toyota?”
Petersen: “Did he give any reason why she would do this?”
Slates: “Mr. Moyers’ impression was that she was rapidly changing lanes, and, he said, he was so concerned that he slowed down because he thought she was going to cause an accident.”
Petersen: “And he was 70 to 80 feet behind a group of vehicles?”
Petersen: “Did he indicate how fast they were going?”
Slates: “I think about 70 but I’d have to check my report.”
Judge: “Go ahead.”
Slates: “My apologies. He actually does not give a speed.”
Petersen: “You also spoke to Troy Van Patten?”
Petersen: “And he was two or three vehicles behind the Datsun?”
Petersen: “And he basically describes the Datsun changing lanes, back and forth?”
Petersen: “And no problems, correct?”
Petersen: “You also spoke to Brandon Focault?”
Petersen: “Where was he?”
Slates: “He was ahead of the Datsun, looking back.”
Petersen: “Any particular reason for that?”
Slates: “Just a routine checking of his mirrors.”
Petersen: “Again, he describes the Datsun as striking the Toyota with great force?”
Petersen: “And he didn’t give any reason?”
Petersen: “And my client told you she was crowded off the roadway and onto the median?”
Petersen: “And she estimated her speed as between 70 and 72 mph?”
Petersen: “Was there any investigation into whether my client’s vehicle left the roadway?”
Slates: “That would have been up to Officer [Christopher] Dabbs.”
Petersen: “But as far as you know there was no indication that my client’s car left the roadway?”
Slates: “I don’t recall him saying anything like that. Officer Dennon, I believe, advised me that Sergeant Danly later went out with an investigator.”
Petersen: “The Toyota was scabbed together from about ten different vehicles, wasn’t it?”
Slates: “I don’t know that. I know we had roll-over damage, but it appeared to be in working order before that, though it hadn’t been registered for quite some time.”
Petersen: “So it may have not been in good working order?”
Deputy DA Josh Rosenfeld for the prosecution: “Objection, counsel misstates the evidence. He said it appeared to be in good working order.”
Judge John Behnke: “He did say that. Sustained.”
Petersen: “Did it appear to be pieced together?”
Slates: “I don’t know about that.”
Petersen: “But the tailgate was brown, the body gray, and part of the cab was missing?”
Petersen showed Slates a picture of the vehicle and he admitted it looked that way.
Petersen: “Any other indications the Toyota had been Frankensteined together?”
Petersen: “But there was no cover to the back part of the passenger area — was there a top laying around anywhere?”
Petersen called Samantha Burkey, a personal injury accident investigator with over 30 years experience. She went out to the scene of the accident with Sergeant Danley, located the scene and found the tire marks in the soft median, which she photographed.
Petersen: “Is there any way to say the tire marks were definitely made by my client’s vehicle?”
Petersen: “But would it be consistent with my client’s testimony that she was forced off the road and had to swerve back on?”
Burkey: “It’s certainly within the realm of possibility.”
Petersen: “Nothing further.”
Rosenfeld: “This is a case of he-said-she-said, your honor. But when we throw in the witnesses, it’s clear she was driving recklessly, making unsafe lane changes, and caused serious injuries to the driver and passenger in the Toyota.”
Petersen: “It’s clear my client was changing lanes before the accident, but not at the time of the collision. And the witnesses say she was only going five or ten miles faster than the flow of traffic — at a walk, possibly at a run — but not much faster than the others, which can hardly be described as reckless. So I just don’t see the evidence setting this at the level of recklessness. She has no problem until she gets next to the Toyota and at that point the witnesses say she slammed into the Toyota. The Toyota, I think, crowded her off the road and then she swerved back on.”
Petersen paused before adding, “If the court doesn’t agree, then I’d be asking for a 17b Motion to have this reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor; it's a wobbler.”
Rosenfeld: “Objection, your honor. This is felony level reckless driving with injuries.”
Behnke: “Overruled. The court may exercise its discretion. This is a situation where the evidence is sufficient for a holding order, because from the moment Ms. Gallegos enters the freeway she has the attention of all the other drivers, each of whom describe her as weaving in and out of traffic. If she went into the median that does not necessarily indicate the Toyota did anything out of the ordinary. Four or five other drivers out there never see the Toyota do anything to precipitate this, so that’s enough to make the court reasonably suspicious. The passenger in the Toyota was injured in the arm and the driver lost consciousness at the scene so all the elements of the charge are there. Although the speed was not horrendous it was sufficient. Still, I’ll let you go ahead and make your pitch for the 17b. reduction to a misdemeanor, Mr. Petersen.”
“Judge, she’s only 22 years old, a student at the college who owns her own business with a federal contract, a young lady who is going somewhere with her life replanting logged-over forest land. I’d hate to see her drag this felony around the rest of her life.”
Rosenfeld: “It’s important to note that she decided to drive in this manner and by doing so caused these injuries. She can get a felony reduced in time, she won’t have to drag it around the rest of her life.”
Petersen: “Her business is licensed by the federal government and once a felon, always a felon, as far as the feds are concerned.”
Behnke: “Generally we see this in the context of a DUI and she has no other traffic violations, so humm… Okay, I’m gonna grant the 17b. This is something that even as a misdemeanor, the aspects are substantial, but due to her good driving record and lack of any criminal record, I think it’s justified.”
Rosenfeld tried again to keep the felony, but Judge Behnke rarely ever second guesses his first instincts, and Ms. Gallegos will be back for an arraignment May 18th to decide whether a jury would treat her any better. She may have been trying to get ahead out there in the traffic — just like she does in life -- but that’s what they encourage us all to do in this crazy car culture — even if it kills us.