Witness: Accident was unavoidable

Engineer testifies in hit-and-run trial that driver had no time to swerve away from man

Posted: Wednesday, January 26, 2000

KETCHIKAN - A defense witness Tuesday said accused hit-and-run driver Joel Taplin could not have avoided striking an Auke Bay man, causing injuries that killed him.

Mechanical Engineering Professor Bahram Ravani testified as one of the three witnesses called by defense attorney Louis Menendez. The defense rested its case this morning, two days earlier than expected. Final arguments were scheduled for Thursday morning, after which the case will go to the jury.

During nearly seven hours of testimony, Ravani said victim Harry Richard Carlson had one foot in the travel lane of Back Loop Road when he was struck by Taplin's Volkswagen Jetta.

``My conclusion is that the factor that caused this accident is a `dart out' - the act of a pedestrian quickly walking into the path of the vehicle and being seen for a brief time (by an oncoming driver),'' said Ravani, a paid witness who teaches at the University of California, Davis.

Taplin, 27, faces a manslaughter charge alleging he recklessly caused Carlson's death in the July 21 incident. Earlier in the trial, District Attorney Rick Svobodny said Taplin, a teacher visiting Juneau from New England, was responsible for Carlson's death because he drove an unsafe vehicle while drunk and drove off the main path of the road.

Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins moved the trial, in its sixth day today, to Ketchikan because of pretrial publicity in Juneau.

Ravani was brought to the stand by Menendez to testify about ``the factors that contributed to make this accident happen.''

Ravani said Taplin was driving on Back Loop Road as Carlson walked around the front of his Toyota truck, which was parked on the side of the road. The defense witness estimated Taplin was driving at 37.4 miles an hour and saw Carlson about two seconds before he struck him, not enough time to avoid him.

Taplin sideswiped the truck and hit Carlson head-on, sending him flying onto the Volkswagen's roof, Ravani said. It was a ``complex event'' that could have confused Taplin.

``Here is a driver confronted with a body that comes through the windshield and then goes on the roof. The driver gets confused. The driver does not know what to do; (he thinks) if he brakes, the body would fall,'' Ravani said.

Drivers under these circumstances ``do weird things,'' he said. ``The car goes a long distance afterward.''

Witnesses have stated Taplin continued driving after Carlson's body fell off his car and had to be encouraged to return to the site. But Ravani said Taplin's reaction was typical of what any driver would have done under the circumstances.

Ravani said he based his conclusions on inspection of the crash scene two months after the incident, review of police and witness reports and other knowledge stemming from his two decades of experience studying traffic incidents for court cases.

He said his field ``requires a lot of know-how - but also a lot of assumptions.''

Under cross-examination by prosector Svobodny, Ravani said his fee was $200 an hour, including travel time, and $320 an hour when he was on the witness stand. Ravani estimated he had spent 50 to 70 hours on the case, for a total of up to $14,000, before he arrived in Ketchikan for the trial.

Svobodny also asked why alcohol never entered into Ravani's calculations, since a breath test showed Taplin with a blood-alcohol level of 0.142 percent, above the legal limit, two hours after he hit Carlson. The prosecutor asked if Ravani's assertion that a driver would need a minimum of two seconds to react to a pedestrian moving into the roadway assumed the driver was sober.

``Isn't it a fact that more than 60 percent of pedestrian collisions involve alcohol?'' Svobondy asked.

Defense attorney Menendez objected that the statistic cited had to do with accidents in general, and the trial was about one particular incident.

Judge Collins advised the jury, ``. . . what you are to decide is based on evidence in this case - not statistics in America.''

Ravani then rephrased his opinion of Taplin's mental condition: ``I did not see anything in the trajectory of the vehicle that there was any impairment to his judgment.''

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