Local News

Thursday, May 22 2014 05:46 PM

Researcher says numerous factors other than inattentiveness could have caused fatal crash

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Anna Marie Reynosa leaves Kern County Superior Court with family and supporters following her arraignment on a vehicular manslaughter charge in the death of motorcyclist Charla Wilkins.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

A driver could, in succession, fail to notice signs warning of a stop ahead, fail to notice the stop sign itself and fail to see a motorcyclist directly ahead without necessarily being an inattentive driver, a traffic safety researcher testified on the 10th day of the Anna Marie Reynosa trial Thursday.

Anthony Stein, president and technical director of Safety Research Associates, Inc., in La Canada told the jury driving is a "divided attention" activity, involving making numerous decisions second by second, such as checking the mirror, maintaining a safe speed, switching the radio station and other activities.

Reynosa is charged with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence in connection with texting while driving in a fatal crash on April 14, 2012.

Prosecutors say Reynosa was on her cellphone when she drove her Toyota Tacoma into the rear of a motorcycle stopped at a stop sign at the intersection of Jewetta Avenue and Reina Road in northwest Bakersfield.

The motorcyclist, 20-year-old Charla Wilkins, died shortly afterward.

A driver who takes his or her eyes off the road for a second or two to change the radio or adjust their mirrors isn't being inattentive, said Stein, who was called by Deputy Public Defender Ernest Hinman Thursday morning and testified for nearly three hours.

"As drivers we scan, we look at a lot of places other than directly in front of us," he said.

It's inattention if a person's not looking ahead at the wrong time, he said. For example, driving in heavy traffic on the freeway would be the wrong time to do something other than focus on what's straight ahead.

Motorists can't process everything they see, Stein said. They learn as they become more experienced drivers to filter out nonessential information and focus on what's important.

He said sometimes "task-oriented fatigue" comes into play in traffic crashes. Task-oriented fatigue happens when drivers do something repetitively -- such as driving the same route each day -- and fail to notice or do something they've always regularly noticed or done before.

That could include running a stop sign, Stein said. A driver may fail to process the information that a stop sign is in front of her even though she's always noticed it before.

Reynosa, 22, has said she frequently traveled the area where the crash occurred.

Stein also testified motorists involved in crashes with motorcycles often say they never saw the motorcycle. As drivers, Stein said we mostly see cars or trucks on the road; we don't notice small, vertical objects such as motorcycles and bicycles as easily as we do bigger vehicles.

Reynosa has told investigators that her brakes must have failed because she stomped on them and her pickup wouldn't stop. Stein said "pedal misapplication" occurs when drivers think they're hitting the brake but are actually pressing down on the accelerator or even the floor.

Shifting in your seat so your feet aren't aligned as they normally are, bumping around on a rough road or an unexpected event such as airbag deployment can all result in pedal misapplication, he said.

Under cross-examination by prosecutor Esther Schlaerth, Stein said he had no experience in accident reconstruction. But he said his testimony provides scientifically valid alternate explanations to Reynosa's crash.

Stein said all the alternatives he presented can't be ruled out, but also admitted it can't be proven that pedal misapplication, task-oriented fatigue or the other alternatives played a role in the crash.

He said his company is being paid $7,250 by the defense for his testimony.

Reynosa faces up to six years in prison if convicted. The trial resumes Friday, and Judge John W. Lua told the jury closing arguments will take place no later than Wednesday.

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