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July 18, 2010

Sentencing This Week In Nail Polish Motorcyclist Death

On May 2, 2009, Lora L. Hunt, 48, re-ended motorcyclist Anita Zaffke, 56, who had stopped for a red light near Lake Zurich, IL, about 40 miles north of Chicago. (Google map view of the intersection; Zaffke was traveling south on Route 12.)

Zaffke, who was wearing a bright high-viz yellow safety jacket and riding a Honda Shadow, was thrown “a couple hundred feet” and died at the scene of a broken neck. (She was wearing a full-face helmet.)

In September, a grand jury returned a six-count indictment against Hunt. She was convicted of reckless homicide; the sentencing hearing is set for July 22. Her sentence could range from probation to five years in prison for the conviction of reckless homicide.

At the time of the crash, Hunt told officers that she had been painting her nails. At her trial, “[e]xpert testimony revealed that Hunt’s car hit Zaffke at approximately 50-miles-per-hour” which was less than the posted speed limit of 55 mph. From the Chicago Tribune:

Crash scene photographs showing dark red polish splattered over the dashboard, air bag and passenger door of a car were displayed during the trial of a motorist who allegedly was painting her nails before she slammed into a motorcyclist.

[…]

Mermel said Hunt was driving 50 mph at the time. She kept pressing the gas pedal and wondered why her car wasn’t slowing down, he said.

“So not only did she miss a person in a bright green jacket, but she missed the brake pedal,” Mermel told a reporter during a break in the testimony.

How did investigators know that Hunt had failed to apply brakes? The car’s onboard computer, “which recorded data from the vehicle for 2-1/2 seconds before the air bag deployment, showed the car did not slow down at all before the impact.”

The local NBC affiliate provided the defense’s framing:

Hunt’s lawyer, Jeff Tomczak, said other motorists around Zaffke’s motorcycle went through the intersection on a yellow light.  Zaffke stopped, giving Hunt “less than a half-second to react.”

Last year, Hunt’s lawyer insisted that “distracted driving is not against the law” and floated the “everyone does it” defense: “People have to realize, however, that every day people are talking on the phone, texting, eating and such while driving,” according to the Morris Daily Herald.

What is against the law is reckless driving and the jury determined that painting nails while driving 50 mph — accompanied by pressing the gas pedal instead of the brake — was a reckless act.

It is clear that Hunt was following too closely: the accident reconstructionist “calculated that Hunt was trailing Zaffke by 96 to 130 feet.” With a 55 mph speed limit, a two-second following distance is 160 feet. “[A] motorcycle traveling at 55 mph can reach a full stop in 170 feet with aggressive braking.” Thus, if Zaffke stopped in about 170 feet, Hunt would have had about a football field’s length to come to a stop, had she been paying attenion. But the defense attorney insisted that Zaffke “…drove the motorcycle in a reckless way.” Blame the person who has been killed, who cannot defend her decision to stop when the traffic light turned from green to yellow.

A big reminder: riders should be aware of the traffic behind them when preparing to stop at an intersection. If it looks like the car behind you isn’t stopping, you can squeeze into the crosswalk area (unless there’s a pedestrian there). However, this advice would not have helped Zaffke — she would have had to change her mind and run the light.

See Black Nail Brigade.

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