Dangerous routes

Brayton Drive, one of Anchorage’s specially designated bike routes/Craig Medred photo

Almost a month has passed since 13-year-old Zakkary Mann was rundown on Brayton Drive, a specifically designated “bike route” in Alaska’s largest city, and still his mother, Shana, is no closer to finding the hit-and-run driver.

She has had little help from the Anchorage Police Department (APD).

Marc Grober, an attorney and a longtime safety advocate for the cyclists and pedestrians now lumped together as “vulnerable road users,” contends it’s because the police don’t much care.

A lot of folks have been getting rundown on Anchorage streets in recent years. The hit-and-run drivers are almost never found, and the drivers who remain at the scene seldom face any consequences no matter what happens.

If the police ever were interested in making the streets safer for those vulnerable road users, they now appear to be following the marching orders they got from state prosecutors years ago.

It was bout this time of year in 2008 that 19-year-old cyclist Jonathon Johnson was struck and killed by a motorist who ran a red light at the intersection of 40th Avenue and C Street in midtown Anchorage. APD tried to prosecute that case.

A state prosecutor, however, told a grand jury the case put before it wouldn’t constitute a major crime unless jurors found driver Melissa Rabe was driving under the influence of drugs on that fateful Monday morning.

“At the conclusion of the state’s presentation,” court documents said of the grand juries reaction, “the foreperson asked the prosecutor: ‘If we determine that she wasn’t impaired by THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) but she ran the red light and hit him, what are our options in that regard?’

To which the prosecutor responded: “Well, you have to find that she was criminally negligent then. And if you don’t find that she’s criminally negligent and its just civil negligence, you’ve heard from (APD) Investigator (Steve) Buchta that mere civil negligence results in nothing more than a red light citation, even though you caused the death of an individual by going through a red light.”

In Alaska, criminal negligence requires a “gross deviation” from standard norms, and it’s pretty much the norm in Anchorage for drivers to try to “beat” a yellow light and end up passing through an intersection on the red.

Johnson, who rode into the intersection as the light turned green, fatally discovered that green doesn’t always mean it’s safe to go.

A national attitude

The Johnson treatment of vulnerable road users is not unique to Alaska.

In a country where motor vehicles have come to be considered a necessity and where most motorists believe that driving is a right, not a privilege, those who rundown vulnerable road users often get a pass.

Thirty-two-year-old Farrukh Mushtaq was estimated to have been driving his BMX SUV at more than three times the speed limit when he ran a red light in  San Fransico’s SOMA district in 2016 and killed 26-year-old cyclist Katherine Slattery, a mechanical engineer working at Solar City, a start-up energy company later acquired by Tesla. 

Mushtaq didn’t bother to stop, but good samaritans managed to chase him down after the collision and hold him until police arrived. He was then charged with felony vehicular manslaughter, misdemeanor hit and run, and felony hit and run, writes Susan Dyer Reynolds at the Gothamist.

Mushtaq, who claimed he was innocent because “God was driving,” spent 16 days in jail before working out a plea deal that set free a man who, according to records, sped away from a strip club at more than 80 mph after his wife showed up to confront him about his cocaine snorting and prostitute chasing.

Mushtaq’s punishment was to be put on probation for three years.

Even the San Francisco Police Officers Association was upset about that outcome and posted this on its Facebook page:

“So what happens if you spend your day snorting coke, dropping $$ on hookers & at the Strip Club, then you get busted by your wife, speed off @ 80 MPH, mow down and kill a cyclist and flee? 16 days in jail for time served when Chesa Boudin is your DA.”

Slattery was a well-educated, white woman from Wisconsin, the sort of individual for whom law enforcement in this country usually tries to find justice.

Johnson was a young, Alaska Native man from Emmonak. Nobody even bothered to protest the handling of his case.

At the time, the Anchorage Daily News, parroting APD statements, reported that dark road conditions were likely a factor in the collision and that Johnson was not wearing reflective gear.

Victim blaming is a common response to the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists in a city where it is generally believed no one should travel anywhere except in a motor vehicle.

Shana Mann learned this the hard way after she turned to local television station KTUU to plead for public help in identifying the driver who left her son on the pavement of Brayton Drive bloody, bleeding and broken on the evening of Sept. 10.

Some people commenting on the story quickly blamed Zackkary for being out too late, not wearing high visibility clothing and mainly being on the service road that offered the best route from South Anchorage’s Get Air Trampoline Park to his home less than a mile north.

As one of those people observed, “I hope they find the driver, but yall need to teach your kids to stay out of the road and if they’re riding a bike at night, they need to wear reflective clothing…”

“I was never out of the house past 830 and that was in a small neighborhood let alone a very busy street next to a highway lesson learned you should’ve been home,” another added.

Brayton Drive

The designated “bike route” on which Zackkary was struck is not a “busy street,” let alone a “very busy street” though it does approach the former during commuting hours in the morning and afternoon.

Most of the time, however, it looks like it looks in the photo above.

Despite being recognized as “bike route,” the road lacks designated bike lanes and sidewalks, but then it really shouldn’t need them. Brayton is a straight, two-lane, one-way service road with excellent sight lines and at night is partially lit by the lights that line Seward Highway just to the west.

These things make it an easy place to see what or who is on the road ahead and provide plenty of room to avoid running into anything or anyone. Simply put, Zakkary and two friends picked about the safest possible route for a cyclist from the trampoline park to his home.

And yet, it’s not safe.

Four years before Zakkary was hit, 38-year-old Kasey Turner was run down and killed on the same road.

At that time, an APD spokeswoman blamed “visibility and road conditions” for his death and explained to the ADN that “Turner was partially in the roadway and not on a sidewalk, and he was wearing dark clothing.

“Pedestrians should always utilize sidewalks or keep as far away from the main road as possible.”

The driver of the pickup who hit Turner was not identified. Drivers never are in APD reports to the media.

APD added that no charges had been filed against the driver, but an investigation was underway. That too is standard APD boilerplate. If these investigations actually ever get done is unknown.

APD, which is highly active on social media, has never revealed the outcome of any other than those involving “impaired” drivers. The agency doesn’t appear to have tried to charge a sober drive for killing a pedestrian or cyclist since the Johnson case.

APD’s public efforts to find the driver who left Zakkary on the pavement with a broken leg and a broken collarbone appear to have been minimal, as well, though Shana said authorities found at the scene a hood ornament that confirmed the boy had been hit by a Mercedes as the two friends riding with Zakkary at the time suspected.

The black or dark-collard vehicle also left its driver’s side view mirror at the scene of the crash before speeding off Brayton onto Academy Drive. Shana says she is still hoping for help from the public in finding that car.

“I knew I would get way more help from people in Anchorage that know that area or who cares about this stuff because it is really getting out of hand with people and their disregard for another person’s life,” she messaged.

“(Alaska has) changed since I was a kid in the ’90s and ’90s, too….If I had known how bad Anchorage got when I moved back here from Oregon six years ago, I probably wouldn’t have come here.”

Shana suspects the driver who slammed into Zakkary “was probably someone who had been drinking. But they knew they hit my son. They took off and saw my son’s friend trying to run after the car after it hit him.”


All of that is pure speculation, and there are other possibilities.

The friends riding with Zakkary said the Mercedes veered toward him before the collision, and nationally there are regular reports of hostile drivers veering toward cyclists to express their displeasure at sharing the road.

“It seems like there’s more and more animosity… towards cyclists. And people are getting more and more, I guess, aggressive,” Mark Gringle, a 60-year-old cyclist who suffered a brain bleed, a punctured lung, a broken shoulder, collarbone and pelvis plus nine broken rib after being assaulted by a road-raged motorist near Seattle told his local newspamer in August. “It seems to be OK with a lot of people – they talk about it at parties, ‘Oh yeah, I hate those cyclists’ which makes people want to do things like get too close to them.”

Gringle made the mistake of flipping the bird at the driver of a vehicle that close-passed him on a deserted, two-lane with plenty of room for a safe pass, but it doesn’t always take such a minor aggravation to put cyclists in the hood-sights of drivers.

In one of the country’s highest profile cases, a Texas teenager is now facing charges of assault with a deadly weapon for “rolling coal” on a group of cyclists with the family pickup before mowing six of them down.

With bodies then scattered along the roadway, the Houston Chronicle reported in November, “the driver stopped and spoke with responding (police) officers, but left the scene without charges or a citation, incensing local bike advocates and spurring a war of words between Waller District Attorney Elton Mathis and Waller Police Chief Bill Llewellyn over how the incident was initially handled.”

The district attorney subsequently announced he’d assigned his own investigators to the case and planned to prosecute the teen, whose family the DA said had connections with Waller city officials. 

In many parts of the country, it doesn’t seem to take much in terms of connections to get local law enforcement agencies to treat injuries or deaths to vulnerable road users as minor matters.

Anchorage is probably to be commended for at least making a show of trying to find hit-and-run drivers when such people are struck. The agency twice last month sent out social media posts containing stop light photos of vehicles involved in hit-and-run collisions with vulnerable road users downtown.

The first involved a 2004 to 2007, silver-colored Volkswagen Touareg that hit a pedestrian in late August, the second a “white sedan” that hit a cyclist in early September.  (The Nixle links here provide some more information on the vehicles and instructions on how to report any suspect vehicle.)

Both accidents were reported to have left vulnerable road users with “life-threatening injuries,” but there have been no subsequent reports as to whether they lived or died.

Police have released no photos of the Mercedes that hit Zakkary if such photos exist. Most stoplights in Anchorage are now outfitted with traffic cameras,  and there appears to be one on the stoplight at O’Malley Road and the Seward Highway that might have captured an image of someone using the main entrance to one-way Brayton Drive.


13 replies »

  1. Bicycles and motorized vehicles on the same pavement without barrier separation is inherently dangerous. The fundamental problems are the vast differences in velocity and the ability of bicycles to make sudden abrupt moves that cars cannot avoid. Yet so many bicyclists use the road with arrogant impunity practically daring automobiles to enter their perceived zone of right of way. Then there are the bicyclists who ride at night without lights or reflective clothing. Hit one of those with your auto and the ADN will skewer the driver and implicitly exonerate the bicyclist. The roads in Anchorage are not safe for bicyclists and nothing we do will change that.

    • Funny. You suggest there is nothing that can be done to fix the problem after opening your comment with exactly how the the problem could be fixed. And the place where this accident happened is a perfect place to fix the problem cheaply. You could put some cement barriers down Brayton, a lightly used two-lane road, to created a protected bike path and a one-lane road with shoulders.

      The rest of this is just victim-blaming bullshit. Some cyclists are dicks. Far more motorists are dicks. And when is the last time a driver got “skewer”ed for running down a vulnerable road user anywhere in Anchorage? Be real. Most of them don’t even get their names in the newspaper.

  2. If the world wants to go green then make safe bicycle routes.
    The way i grew up was cyclists pedestrians and other historic modes of travel always had the right of way and was the motorized drivers responsibility to do whatever it took to assure safety for the other user .
    As far as im concerned anyone who doesn’t treat cyclists with utmost respect can find a watery grave .
    In 2022 its time to upgrade our routes to guarantee safety of all users . Step up voters and planners !

  3. You can scream and holler, you can even throw people in jail, but there needs to be better design or bikes will continue to be a more dangerous mode of transportation than cars.

    Bikes and cars simply don’t mix, especially at the speeds our roads are designed for. Bikes are great, and both bike riders and car drivers are great, and sometimes they mess up, in a car things are an insurance and body shop hassle, on a bike it can be life or death. Separate the two with physical barriers, bike lanes aren’t good enough. There’s just too much going on. Fault won’t repair a busted body.

    • Can’t argue with that, but nobody wants to make the investment. And even if they did, the remedy takes time.

      In the here and now, about the only thing that can be done is to make drivers pay more attention to their driving, and some enforcement would help there. APD seems to spend its enforcement money on catching speeders on the Seward at the Dimond exit or on the Glenn.

      That’s not where people are getting killed in Anchorage.

      And, of course, we have a “click it or ticket” campaign to protection dumb-asses who mainly kill themselves in accidents but no effort whatsoever is made to crack down on people who text while driving and kill others.

  4. These types of stories are constantly in the news across the country it seems. Accidents do happen for sure. But so many incidents could be prevented if driver’s weren’t so careless in their passing of cyclists and just seeming to resent anyone riding a bike on the road. Yelling you don’t belong on the road. Hey, I’m a tax paying citizen. Property owner. I do have a right to ride a bicycle wherever the law says I can. Bike riders, please wear reflective gear, get some lights, and ride defensively. You can’t win in a fight with auto’s. One last thing. How can people live with themselves after leaving the scene of a hit and run?

    • Accidents are pretty damn rare, Vic. I’ve watched at least a half-dozen moose get rundown in this city over the years. None of those collisions were accidents. A classic one involved a Hillside neighbor headed downhill at 35 mph on a road so icy it was hard to get stopped in any reasonable distance on the flat.

      Hey, the road ahead was straight. What could possibly go wrong? Gravity maybe.

      There wasn’t even anti-lock brakes could do to save that moose when it stepped on the road. And for all I know, it was a road-savvy moose (many of them are), thinking it had plenty of time to get across the road because in all previous encounters with cars going at this speed they had slowed down long before getting close enough for their to be an accident.

      Lastly, there seem to be plenty of people who can pretty easily live with themselves are leaving the scene of an accident, even one in which someone dies. Humans are masters at rationalization:

      “He/she would have died anyway.” “He/she should have known better than to be on the road.” “It’s bad enough he/she caused this damage to my car.” etc., etc., etc.

      And, of course, the estimates are about 1 in 10 suffer from either narcisstic personality disorder (it’s all about me) or antisocial personality disorder (sociopaths in common terms). Both types are so self-involved that what they do to others is always a secondary thought if a thought at all.

  5. “……If the police ever were interested in making the streets safer for those vulnerable road users,……….”
    Maybe it’s the traffic engineers at fault? Those pictureaque bike trails might be nice for leisurely rides, but they don’t go where people need to go. No sidewalks mean people have to walk/bike with the cars, and that’s a death waiting to happen.

    • I’m happy to give them some credit for this mess, too. And a special award for all the Americans they helped kill of Covid by designing urban areas so you have to drive to the store (and almost everywhere else) even if the destination is but a few blocks away. There is a lot to be said for the good, old, grid layout they abandoned in favor of all those cute twisty, turny, roads; cul de sacs with no non-motorized access routes through them; and trails and sidewalks designed for strolling not transportation.

      I’d expect I might be part of the last generation of kids to walk or ride a bike to go almost anywhere growing up. Now, mommy and daddy have to drive Johnny and Jane everywhere because the travel routes for kids are just plain bad or too dangerous, and Johnny and Jane are often even more unfit than their parents thanks to all the time they spend sitting on their little butts playing on computers or riding around in motor vehicles.

  6. When He was 14, my older brother was killed when he rode down a steep, blind, driveway and was hit by a car. Although tragic and a bitter pill to swallow, it was entirely His fault. The only “blessing” if you can call it that, the driver was from far away and luckily not the father of one of my friends.

    That said, I have noticed, especially in Anchorage, many bicycle riders want it both ways. They run red lights at high speeds by using the pedestrian crossing yet use the roadways when it suits them even if a bike trail is parallel to the roadway. I sympathize with their troubles with inconsiderate automobile drivers, yet there are many bike riders of the same ilk.

    Years ago, I was heading downtown on Minnesota from Spenard. The right lane traffic was backed up past Benson, so I changed to the left lane. Cars kept changing to the left lane slowing my travel. I assumed there was a wreck or disabled vehicle in the right-hand lane, however just past West High, I found the cause. A young man was in the middle of the right lane on a bicycle holding his right arm skyward displaying his middle finger. No doubt, there were a few in that line of traffic that wanted to flatten him.

    Automobile drivers and bicycle riders both contribute to the dangers vulnerable bicycle riders face daily. I used to ride motorcycles and likened it to “running down the highway at great speeds with no protection”. All automobile drivers need to realize the flesh and bones of the bicycle rider are no match for tons of speeding metal.

    • Sorry for your loss.

      Good to see that you mention motorcycles. The threat to people on two motorized wheels doesn’t get mentioned enough. The motorcycle death rate of 32.64 per 100 million vehicle miles is about three to 10 times the best estimates of that for cyclists ( 3.7 to 12.6 per 100 million).

      Often after their deaths motor vehicle drivers claimed “I didn’t see them.” Motor vehicle drivers seem to miss a lot these days, mainly because a lot of them aren’t paying attention when they drive as I’m guessing you’ve noticed.

      The red light issue and cyclists is a red herring. Cyclists who run red lights don’t kill people. Idaho solved the problem here with a law now called the “Idaho stop,” which allows cyclists to treat stop signs and red lights as yield signs. The number of bicycle fatalities in that state actually went down the year after the passage of that 1982 legislation.

      I’ve ridden a fair bit in Boise. It’s a lot friendlier place to bike. I get the feeling the Idaho stop law has taken some of the anger out of the car-bike relationship by removing the resentment that cyclists are getting away with something because they run red lights and don’t get ticketed.

      Then again, who gets ticketed for running red lights in Anchorage. I see somebody in a car or truck run one almost every day. I sometimes use the Arc of Anchorage stop light on Northern Lights (the only one I know of in Anchorage that actually works when you push the button) just to see what happens.

      One night after the WALK sign came on six cars proceeded to fly through the red light over the road at speeds in excess of 40 mph, two of those despite my having turned the handlebars on the bike to point a bright, flashing front light at the traffic to alert people to someone standing on the edge of the crosswalk.

      Cars so regularly do this at that crossing that I’d hate to see a blind walker take advantage of the signal. The odds are high that they would die.

      We have become a society in such a big hurry to get somewhere, anywhere, nowhere that we’ve become largely unconcerned if we maim or kill someone. I just this morning watched a right-turn-on-red motorist nearly take out a pedestrian not because she didn’t seem him (normally a big problem) but because she didn’t think s\he should be there.

      She got all over her horn because he stepped into the crosswalk on the WALK sign. She clearly saw that as an effort os his part to intentionally inconvenience her. It’s strange world we live in today.

      • “I didn’t see them.” Cars pulling out in front of me during the day when I was operating a motorcycle with the headlight on was one of the factors that stopped me riding. Deer during the day and night also was a real cause for concern for a motorcycle rider in the Lower 48. Met a doctor who cut one in half and somehow lived to tell the tale.

        “Cyclists who run red lights don’t kill people.” No, but it can definitely get them killed…..

        In addition to daily automobile redlight runners, I see virtually 60% or more of the drivers texting every day. This includes all age brackets. Often drivers on both sides of me are texting when I’m driving. Scary.

  7. It is a shame with all the space in Anc there is not more dedicated bike lanes throughout the city… even NYC has dedicated bike lanes and they have way less space available. That is the nice thing about living in the valley close to the Parks hwy…. dedicated bike lane most of the way. It helps keep a buffer b/w cyclist and the intoxicated general public…ie motorists.

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