Our View

Monday, Dec 19 2011 11:01 PM

OUR VIEW: Now, what can we learn from Oildale tragedy?

By The Bakersfield Californian

Saturday's automobile vs. pedestrian tragedy in Oildale involving a Kern County sheriff's deputy and two local residents is a tragedy for all concerned. The tragedy will be compounded if we don't learn from it and act to lessen the chances that similar tragedies will occur.

Daniel Hiler, 24, and Chrystal Jolley, 30, were walking Hiler's disabled motorcycle across Norris Road when, at about 7:30 p.m., Deputy John Swearengin, westbound on Norris Road, struck and killed them both.

Witnesses have contributed unsubstantiated but troubling details: Swearengin, some witnesses say, was traveling at 75 to 90 mph on the four-lane road, which has a posted speed limit of 45 mph. His headlights were on, but apparently not his flashing rooftop lights or siren, based on the word of witnesses. He was at Diane Drive, less than a mile east of Sheriff's Department headquarters. Sheriff Donny Youngblood says Swearengin was responding to a report of a stolen vehicle with a suspect still at the scene. Such speeds would only be justified if Swearingen were responding to an emergency, and the presence of a car thief would surely qualify as such in the minds of most victims. Law enforcement hears plenty about slow response times; Swearingen apparently has no intention of contributing to that perception.

But outraged Oildalians say this incident feeds another negative perception: That sheriff's patrol cars are often seen speeding through the community for no apparent reason. There's no way to substantiate such accusations, but the complaint deserves a hearing by the department's leadership.

Other circumstances, unrelated to the sheriff's deputy or the victims, may have played a role in the incident. For starters, on dark, overcast nights, many urbanized but unincorporated portions of metro Bakersfield may be unusually dark, and Norris Road is one such place. Does the volume of street and foot traffic justify the county Roads Department looking at street lighting, traffic signals or other driver-awareness tools at locations such as Norris Road? The grieving loved ones of Saturday's tragedy would surely say so. The Sheriff's Department ought to agree.

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