UPDATE: This story has been edited from an earlier version to include data from the 2018 Annual Traffic Report from the Municipality of Anchorage and details on the extent of Hannah Halverson’s injuries.
A month has now passed since a member of the U.S. Nordic Ski Team was seriously injured on an Anchorage street, and the Anchorage Police Department, for reasons unknown, refuses to say anything about the motor-vehicle collision that put her in the hospital.
Twenty-one-year-old Hannah Halvorsen suffered serious injuries to her leg and her head in early November, according to friends. She this week posted an Instagram photo of herself in a hospital bed wearing a neck brace with this note:
“I have a skull fracture, bleeding and bruising in my brain, a tibia fracture, and my left MCL and PCL are torn completely and detached from the bone. Although I have experienced a fair share of sadness, frustration, and fear, I have also been overwhelmed with gratitude for life and love. Every day I have this realization that I am still alive and that I have no permanent injuries. Thank you everyone who has texted, called, sent me cards and art supplies, and let me stay in your home. I believe I can make it to the next Olympics and that’s because of you.”
“Reports from her parents is that this amazing gal is tough and ‘all is not lost just delayed,'” a hopeful Foundation added.
Friends of the Alaska Pacific University star say she was hit by a motorist turning right on red in the downtown area, but this could not be confirmed because of APD’s silence.
APD Communications Director MJ Thim’s response to a request for information was answered with this email reply: “My unit is unable to help on this inquiry.”
Thim prefers to communicate by email, which is where his phone directs requests for information. Over the course of the last 11 days, subsequent emails to Thim asking why his unit – which is in charge of media communications for APD – is unable to help went unanswered.
Whether it is true Halverson was run down by a motorist turning right on red or not, Anchorage pedestrians and bicyclists say right on red has long been a serious danger in the state’s largest city.
“I have been ‘bumped’ repeatedly by right-turn-on-red morons,” said cyclist Marc Grober, “but I only risk it with my commuter bike or the fatbike.”
Vulnerable road users
An attorney, Grober is active in trying to protect vulnerable road users in the state. He says the battle is all uphill, which has become crystal clear since efforts began to find out what happened to Halvorsen.
Not only did Thim repeatedly fail to respond to requests for information. Emails to Police Chief Justin Doll and spokespeople for Mayor Ethan Berkowitz also disappeared into the tubes where they remain unanswered.
Berkowitz made quality of life in Anchorage a cornerstone of his 2015 mayoral campaign and vulnerable road users emerged as an issue at an April debate between the Democrat, and Amy Demboski, his Republican challenger, the Anchorage Daily News reported at the time.
Berkowitz said the city needed to pay more attention to the dangers motor vehicles pose to cyclists. Demboski argued that keeping the streets plowed and funding the fire department, where her husband worked, was a higher priority.
That led former Mayor Rick Mystrom, a panelist for the debate and a Republican, to interject with a question that was more a statement.
“That’s good; it’s always good to go back to public safety,” Mystrom said, “but we’ve had three bicyclists killed in the last 18 months now. So it’s a fairly serious issue.”
There are no indications the dangers have fallen much, if any, under Berkowitz’s leadership. A KTUU-TV investigation in 2018 reported 16 cyclists and pedestrians hit in 2014, 12 in 2015, 21 in 2016 and 23 in 2017. The story did not catalog the number of deaths.
The Annual Traffic Report from the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA) records 13 collisions in which pedestrians suffered major injuries and two in which cyclists were so injured in 2018, but there was only one death.
That was a major improvement from 2017 when the MOA report recorded nine pedestrian deaths. Maps in the 2017 report, missing from the 2018 report, show collisions between motor vehicles and vulnerable road users clustering in the downtown and midtown areas where more people move about under their own power.
Though the report indicates the death rate is down for 2018, the three-year moving average for pedestrian deaths has been creeping upward since the 2013-15 period, according to the report, although the injury rate remains near the same.
The cycling injury rate is up since 2013-15, but down significantly from 2014-2016. The cycling death rate has also improved, according to the municipal report.
The Accident Data Center strangely indicates four pedestrians killed on Anchorage streets in 2018 – a major difference from the MOA report of one fatality – and two so far this year. How accurate that Accident Center data is unknown. The Center compiles news reports on deadly collisions.
There is no guarantee deadly collisions make the news, and non-deadly collisions, as with Halvorsen, are seldom to never reported in the mainstream media. Plus, as the MOA report makes clear, the number of injury accidents vastly outnumber the count of fatal accidents.
Zack Fields, a Berkowitz supporter and now a member of the state House of Representatives, in a 2017 commentary in the Anchorage Press made it sound terrifying to try to get around in Anchorage without being surrounded by the armor of body metal.
“A couple months ago, two separate automobile drivers almost ran over my wife as she biked on Denali Street,” he wrote. “Lack of safe infrastructure was primarily responsible: The first driver passed her very closely, forcing her to move over onto the sidewalk (Since few Anchorage roads have bike lanes or shared use markings, many drivers incorrectly assume bikes should be on the sidewalk, even though that’s less safe than riding in the street). A block later, an automobile whose driver didn’t see her took a right turn, cutting her off and almost hitting her. This ‘right hook’ is the most common way in which automobiles hit bicyclists, and it is a direct result of shunting cyclists on sidewalks where it is harder for drivers to see them.”
Cycling and walking advocates agree better infrastructure would make Anchorage safer, but they also argue that is only part of the problem. Grober and others cite public and police attitudes toward cyclists and pedestrians as a compounding issue.
When pedestrians and cyclists are hit by motorists, police act almost as if it is their job to protect the drivers. When Berkowitz’s wife, Mara Kimmel, hit and killed a pedestrian in 2007, the family of George Thompson reported it took them almost three weeks to find out the name of the driver of the motor vehicle.
The Kimmel accident eventually became the subject of a wrongful death lawsuit, and when news of that suit finally emerged at Must Read Alaska last year it was suggested Berkowitz used his political influence to keep the story out of the mainstream media.
There is no evidence of that, however, and it is likely Kimmel, a sweet woman who has never spoken publicly about the accident, remains haunted by what happened. The police at the time reported “the driver of the Volvo was likely blinded by the sun as she was turning at the green light,” suggesting there is no need for motorists to be extra careful just because they can’t see what (or who) is ahead in the road.
And with the safety provided by seatbelts and air bags in modern motor vehicles does it really matter in urban areas? A study conducted in the United Kingdom concluded that in a 30 mph crash, the driver of a modern motor vehicle has a 97 percent chance of survival.
Vulnerable road users don’t fare as well. And the rising number of texting-related collisions in the U.S. has in the last few years highlighted the problem of people driving without looking at, or not being able to see, the road ahead. This problem is prevalent in right-turn-on-red collisions.
KTUU-TV in 2017 captured dramatic dash-cam footage of a right-turning motorist slamming into a cyclist who clearly had the green light as she passed through the intersection of Lake Otis Boulevard and East 50th Street.
“When the cyclist enters the roadway, a silver 4-door SUV-style vehicle, which was stopped at the light, pulls forward and collides with the cyclist. This sends the cyclist above the hood of the car, before falling to the pavement,” reporter LeRoy Polk wrote.
“Several witnesses, including the motorist involved, then got out of their vehicles to render assistance to the cyclist. The names of the women involved, driving the SUV and riding the bicycle, have not yet been released.”
Asked for the name of the driver of that vehicle last week, Thim did not respond. But APD spokeswoman Renee Oistad did in 2017 concede to knowledge of the local problem with right turn on red, telling Polk that “drivers have a tendency to do two things: 1) only look to their left, as that is where the traffic is coming from, and 2) pull up all the way through a crosswalk and to the corner, before stopping.”
This danger has long been known.
A 1982 study of “Right-Turn-on-Red (RTOR),” a rule that first came into use in the U.S. in the mid-1970s, found it increased by 40 percent the number of pedestrians hit in New York state and by 82 percent the number of cyclists run into. The numbers were even worse for pedestrians in Ohio with 107 percent more hit, but slightly better for cyclists at only 80 percent more collisions. New Orleans didn’t tabulate cyclists hit, but 80 percent more pedestrians were hit after RTOR than before.
“Analysis of police accident reports suggested that drivers stopped for a red light are looking left for a gap in traffic and do not see pedestrians and bicyclists coming from their right,” the study said.
Some cities have made efforts to identify intersections plagued by right-hand-turn collisions and ban right turns in those locations to protect vulnerable road users. APD did not respond when asked about Anchorage intersections prone to RTOR collisions.
Seattle posted its 10 most dangerous intersections to prohibit RTOR in 2015. A ban on RTOR was instituted at about 100 intersections in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. Chapel Hill, N.C. – home to the University of North Carolina – in October voted to ban RTOR at 17 intersections.
America Walks has been pushing to do away with RTOR altogether or at least prohibit it “in urban or high-pedestrian-density areas at all times or only during daytime hours, which is the time most pedestrian crashes occur.”
No one appears to have studied RTOR problems in high-pedestrian-density areas versus low-pedestrian-density areas, but if Anchorage is any indication, the latter are significantly riskier for pedestrians and cyclists than the former.
Those with experience walking and cycling in Outside cities say more drivers in those places are accustomed to looking for people getting around by some means other than a motor vehicle. Especially in winter, Anchorage drivers have a tendency to assume there are only motor vehicles on the roads.
KTUU bowed to that problem in its April 2017 story about that bike crash. It began with the observation that “as the snow melts and daylight increases, more and more people will take to the street by foot, or bike, in the coming weeks ahead.”
If what Halvorsen’s friends say of her accident is true, her mistake might have been walking around Anchorage in the season where fewer and fewer people take to the street by foot or bike.