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Investigator: Pedestrians often responsible for their own deaths

Bibb County Sheriff's Department traffic fatality investigator Cpl. Austin Riley, third from left, investigates at the scene where a pedestrian was stuck and killed by a driver on Pio Nono Avenue.
Bibb County Sheriff's Department traffic fatality investigator Cpl. Austin Riley, third from left, investigates at the scene where a pedestrian was stuck and killed by a driver on Pio Nono Avenue. bcabell@macon.com

It was a routine night for Amos Harris, who was walking to the Chevron station on Riverside Drive to pick up a case of beer.

About 8:30 p.m. on July 9, 2014, Harris walked into the Chevron, made his purchase and proceeded to sit on the steps outside of Riverside Cemetery.

“He got the beer, got drunk and, once he finished, he tried to get across the street,” said his brother, Rufus Harris.

There are sidewalks on both sides of the street where the cemetery is located. On the cemetery side, the sidewalk dead-ends at the entrance and a guard rail begins.

Instead of walking less than a tenth of a mile to the nearest crosswalk at the intersection of Riverside and College Street, Harris tried crossing from the cemetery entrance.

He was hit and killed by 25-year-old Kriston Raffield.

According to the police report, Raffield was traveling between 45 and 50 mph at the time of impact, which was above the posted speed limit of 35 mph but a common speed in that area. She told police she didn’t see Harris until it was too late.

Rufus Harris is furious that Raffield is facing no charges in the death of his brother.

“You can just get in a car, hit and kill someone, and walk away from it? I’m glad she didn’t get hurt, but everybody needs to have due process. He was still a human being,” Rufus Harris said.

But another hard reality is that Amos Harris, at the time of his death, had a blood alcohol level of 0.338. For a driver, that would have been more than four times the legal limit in Georgia, which is .08.

“Most people can’t get that drunk,” said Assistant Bibb County District Attorney John Regan, who specializes in prosecuting traffic fatality cases. “To be 0.338 and to be upright and then to step out into traffic (on an) at least four-lane road . . ., Regan said.

“And the driver in that case was negative for alcohol.”

Except in cases of extreme driver negligence or misconduct, such as drinking while driving, drivers are rarely prosecuted after they strike and kill a pedestrian, local prosecutors and law enforcement officials say. This is because, very often, the behavior of the pedestrian is an immediate cause of the accident.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

Speeding down busy Eisenhower Parkway, Macon police officer Austin Riley was flashing his blue lights when he was hit by a drunken driver. It was Aug. 10, 2000.

“A drunk driver came off of (Interstate) 75 southbound, pulled out in front of me, switched lanes, slid over a hundred and something feet,” Riley said. “And she kept coming. (I) hit her in the driver-side door and flipped her about four times down Eisenhower ... She was dead on scene and came back with a 0.19 blood alcohol level.”

After the crash, Riley would be out of work for nine months while he learned how to walk again. The incident was a turning point in his career.

“I was always interested in traffic investigations, but once I got in my accident I really wanted to be able to find out why crashes happen,” he said.

Now, as the lead traffic fatality investigator for the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office, Riley is the first to be notified when someone is killed in an accident.

Riley’s own accident involved no pedestrians. But in his experience as an investigator, he said, when a walker is killed by a car, it’s often because the pedestrian is intoxicated.

Of the 18 fatality cases from 2013-14, Riley can only talk about the 11 that are closed. But of those, seven involved victims who were intoxicated.

Such was the case with Brenda Faye Johnson, who was struck and killed Oct. 1, 2013, while crossing Gray Highway.

“Everybody knew Brenda Faye Johnson. She walked Gray Highway every single day. Walked right out in front of your car, didn’t care who you were. . . . You could catch her on one day and she was the sweetest woman you ever talked to. Catch her on another day and she would cuss you from here to there, and you haven’t said nothing but hello,” Riley said.

“At the time of her collision she was on crack cocaine, which was her preferred choice of drug,” he said.

Riley said collisions often occur because a pedestrian darts out into traffic, not allowing the driver time to hit the brakes.

It takes most drivers 1 or 2 seconds to react to anything, Riley said. If you’re driving at 45 mph and pedestrians “dart out in front of you, and you’re 30 feet from them, you’re never even going to have time to touch the brake.

“And you’re going to hit them.”

CCJ student Erica O’Neal contributed to this report.

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