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What you need to know for 08/23/2017

Editorial: Questions remain after death of bicyclist in Johnstown

Editorial: Questions remain after death of bicyclist in Johnstown

Investigation of fatal crash seems less than thorough

If there were unanswered questions immediately after Ed Lakata was hit and killed by a pickup truck while riding his bicycle in the town of Johnstown on June 25, there are even more now that we know the driver, John Damphier, has a history of driving with prescription drugs in his system.

We learned this after another incident, in late July, where Damphier hit a mailbox with his car and was charged with driving while ability impaired on drugs — and when he later told a Gazette reporter about yet another incident, in 2010, where his heart and blood pressure medications caused him to pass out at the wheel and crash his vehicle.

Damphier also admitted to the reporter that he regularly takes pain medication and sleeping pills. In light of all this, it’s only natural to wonder if drugs had something to do with the death of Mr. Lakata.

But Fulton County Sheriff Thomas Lorey didn’t order a chemical test for Damphier. He says he had no reason to — and, lacking reason, can’t under the law — because there were no signs of impairment at the scene, as there were after the July crash, where sheriff’s deputies saw Damphier driving erratically and found what appeared to be prescription pain pills in his car. A chemical test was ordered then, and, sure enough, there were drugs in his system. Damphier was charged with DWAI.

Were there signs that the sheriff missed in June and that he should have looked harder for after a fatality — one where there were no eyewitnesses to the crash and he relied on the driver’s account of what happened to determine the driver wasn’t at fault and it was “an accident in the truest sense of the word”? We don’t know, but given Damphier’s history, one can’t rule out the possibility that he was driving while impaired by drugs that day.

One thing we do know is that Sheriff Lorey’s understanding of state vehicle and traffic law is flawed. He said fault in the fatal crash hinged on whether either man had crossed the white line at the side of the road. In this case it was too close to call, Lorey concluded, and thus the tie went to the driver.

But, in fact, the law makes no reference to any white line. While it says that bicyclists should stay as far right as practicable, it also says they are part of traffic and can ride on the road. Responsible drivers slow down, swing wide and pass at a safe distance.

Since 2010, in fact, New York state law has required that motorists pass at a safe distance. Damphier obviously did not, and that seems justification enough for Lorey at least to have ticketed him.

(Damphier now says that he was straddling the yellow line in the middle of the road and Lakata swerved into him, which is not believable given Sheriff Lorey’s conclusion, based on what Damphier originally told him and the accident scene, that the crash occurred very close to the white line.)

There are other things that could have been done as part of a more thorough investigation after a fatality, which apparently were not. Such as impounding the vehicle and bringing in expert analysts to reconstruct the crash, using physical evidence such as dents and scratches and perhaps technical evidence from the event data recorder, or “black box,” found in vehicles like Damphier’s these days.

Based on his confusion about the law, and these other decisions, some outside agency, such as the state police, needs to review the case and Sheriff Lorey’s handling of it.

A chemical test showing conclusively that Damphier was impaired by drugs might not be necessary in the civil suit filed against him by the bicyclist’s family, but it would certainly have been grounds for criminal charges.

Such tests should be required in all crashes resulting in death or serious injury. And they would be under legislation passed by the Senate in May. The Assembly also needs to pass it. The Johnstown case is a perfect example why.

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