Asking Drivers “How Fast Were You Going?” The Case of Angelica Baca

By Scot Key

Our last post made mention that the full extent of driver speed investigation in many cases of pedestrian fatalities consists solely of police officers asking the driver how fast they were going. Such was the case in the 2019 incident that killed Layla Zaragoza.

A close review of crash and supplemental investigation reports illustrates several reasons for the tendency to employ this far less than ideal method of “analysis,” including:

  • The unfortunate and very important fact that almost all of those killed are dead or so close to death that no information can be gathered from them;
  • A frequent inability to find and interview crash witnesses, particularly those who can report accurately on speed at the time of the crash;
  • Similarly frequent lack of video footage from either the City’s Real Time Crime Center bank of roadway cameras or security cameras at nearby businesses;
  • A noted lack of speed analysis when such video is found, with focus instead almost always being on whether the victim was crossing in a crosswalk and whether the light at that crosswalk was green or red for them; and,
  • A low percentage of cases in which the driver vehicle’s “black box” Event Data Recorder (EDR) is examined via search warrant. As the EDR only tends to be examined in cases where some form of criminal charges against the driver are initially considered (e.g, when the driver is found to be impaired), cases in which “pedestrian error” is quickly identified as primary contributing factor don’t include EDR investigations of speed.

A good example of the unreliability in asking drivers (or in this case passengers) “How fast were you going?” is found in study of 2019’s case of Angelica Baca. Ms. Baca was killed by USAF Senior Airman Calvin Cooper at Louisiana Blvd. and Ross SE on March 23rd of last year. He is currently scheduled for court-martial sometime this Spring on charges of drunken or reckless operation of a vehicle, manslaughter and negligent homicide.

In having looked at over 100 pedestrian fatality cases in the past few years, the details of Ms. Baca’s death are the most disturbing that I have found. And that’s saying something. Matt Reisen at the Journal does a very good job here of describing the event:

The Albuquerque Police Department initially responded to the crash around 7:30 p.m. at Louisiana and Ross SE, where they found a grisly and chaotic scene. Several witnesses frantically called 911 within minutes of the crash, one woman describing body parts strewn about and believed it was a suicide bomber.

I’m gonna just leave it at “grisly and chaotic.” There would be purpose in further delineating just how grisly this incident was, to give more idea of the actual speed Senior Airman Cooper must have be driving at the time of impact, but we’ll just leave it at “grisly.” To go beyond this would be heuristic but probably as disturbing to you as reading it all has been to me.

In fact, the APD crash investigation of the matter is rather brief, especially considering Cooper and his passengers also crashed into an apartment building. This is because the case was quickly transferred to the military. Any EDR information or estimate of how fast Cooper was driving at time of impact are not included in the APD reports. Anecdotally, I’ve heard somewhere around 80 mph, but I’ve not yet gone down what must the be very interesting road of trying to IPRA military records.

Yet, keeping that 80 mph guess in mind, and getting back to our point concerning asking drivers “How fast were you going?,” here is something one can find in the APD reports:

the speeds were normal
Names of passengers and APD officers redacted

Small glitches in the prose aside, I think you get the general idea and it’s quite clear what the passenger’s reported when asked “how fast were you going?”

  • “He said he felt the speeds were normal.”
  • “…she felt like they were going a little above the speed limit but not bad.”

And yes, in case you’re wondering, Senior Airman Cooper’s contribution to the question “How fast were you going?” is: “He said he was going the speed limit in the 40s…”

I doubt anybody in law enforcement disagrees with the contention that asking drivers who kill pedestrians “How fast were you driving?” is a dumb question. That it is asked and quite often becomes the only reference to speed in so many crash reports reflects deep shortcomings in our understanding of these incidents and how far we have to go before we are truly addressing our pledge to reduce the number of roadway fatalities.

 

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