On August 24, 2023, a driver turning onto Piper Street in Anchorage struck and severely injured a pedestrian in a crosswalk. According to an Anchorage Police Department (APD) press release, the pedestrian, retired dentist Carlton Higgins, died from his injuries several days later. An investigation by APD found that the driver had failed to yield to Higgins and bore full responsibility for the deadly collision. APD then determined the penalty for the driver: a $100 fine and four points on his license.
The exceptionally light penalty given to the driver who killed Higgins is standard practice in Anchorage, where the criminal justice system and law enforcement routinely decline to hold drivers responsible for striking and injuring or killing pedestrians and other vulnerable road users. Anchorage residents may be surprised to learn that, by default, drivers who break traffic laws and kill pedestrians face significantly lower penalties than those levied for littering, chasing moose, or using studded tires out of season.
“This was an unfortunate event, but not criminally negligent.”
According to APD, an investigation found that the driver who killed Higgins pulled out of a parking garage in a Ford F250, stopped at a stop sign and activated his vehicle’s turn signal, and waited for traffic to clear to turn left onto Piper Street. Northbound traffic stopped for Higgins, who had entered the crosswalk and who had the right-of-way. But the driver failed to wait for Higgins to exit the crosswalk, instead accelerating into and striking him with his vehicle. According to APD’s August 29 press release update, Higgins subsequently died “from injuries he sustained in the collision.”
Alaska law provides tools for prosecutors to hold individuals responsible for inadvertent killings, including charges for criminally negligent homicide (a Class B felony) and manslaughter (a Class A felony). But APD told the Landmine that, in order to be criminally charged at all, drivers who break traffic laws and kill pedestrians or other vulnerable road users must be exhibiting “criminal negligence”–a higher degree of negligence than “ordinary negligence.” APD described driving under the influence (DUI) or street racing as examples of criminal negligence.
When asked why the driver who killed Higgins did not face criminal charges, despite the finding that the driver had broken the law and was fully responsible for the collision, APD told the Landmine that no “other factors” supported criminal charges. APD stated that the driver was not impaired, was licensed and insured, and was following all rules of the road other than those he broke when he killed Higgins.
“This was an unfortunate event,” APD told the Landmine, “but not criminally negligent.”
The driver, therefore, was only cited under Anchorage Municipal Code 9.20.020(A), “Failure to Yield to Pedestrian in Crosswalk.” The citation carries a $100 fine and a penalty of four points on the driver’s license.
According to APD, there was no ambiguity about the decision not to pursue criminal charges related to Higgins’ death. APD told the Landmine that in cases where it is obvious to APD staff that criminal charges are not warranted, prosecutors do not review reports about traffic fatalities. A prosecutor, APD said, later reviewed the report on Higgins’ killing and agreed with APD’s decision that no crime had been committed other than the underlying minor traffic infraction.
APD told the Landmine that twenty-five drivers had been cited for Failure to Yield to between January 1 and December 6, 2023:
Twenty-Five drivers have been cited under AMC 9.20.020 (FTY to Pedestrian in Crosswalk) since January 1st. These cases all had similar fact patterns; the only difference is that nobody died. There is no law in Alaska that says if you commit a traffic infraction and cause injury or death, then that is per se criminal negligence. The driver in this case was treated the same as all these other cases.
APD releases the names of victims; withholds names of the drivers who killed them
When drivers break the law and kill pedestrians, the names of the victims are plastered across APD press releases and news articles. However, the names of the drivers who killed them are omitted. APD told the Landmine that, as a matter of policy, the department releases the name of a person who dies due to “criminal means and/or a traffic collision,” and releases the names of those charged with crimes.
Because APD does not consider striking and killing a pedestrian legally using a crosswalk to inherently be a crime, the names of drivers who do so are not routinely disclosed.
The Landmine requested the name of the driver who killed Higgins. According to APD, the driver was Russell E. Webb.
After decades of decline, the rate of pedestrian deaths in the United States abruptly changed course in 2009 and has risen steadily since. Experts have attributed this increase to a range of factors, including urban planning that prioritizes vehicle speed, the increasing prevalence of large vehicles that are more likely to kill pedestrians, and a combination of smartphones and automatic transmissions that facilitates distracted driving.
These factors all play out against the backdrop of a legal system that imposes insignificant consequences on drivers who break the law and kill other road users.
Laws that allow drivers to kill pedestrians with few or no consequences are not unique to Alaska. Permissive laws have periodically received media attention and elicited confusion and outrage in the contiguous 48 states. In many cases, calls to update laws have been slow to find success, but the rising rate of pedestrian fatalities has imbued efforts at changing laws with new urgency.
In Washington State, Rep. Paul Harris (R-Vancouver) pursued legislation increasing penalties for drivers who kill vulnerable road users after a driver veered off a road and killed 28-year-old Rachel Casper while she lay in her family’s yard. According to Casper’s father, Perry Casper, the driver who killed his daughter did not lose his vehicle or license, and received only a slap on the wrist.
Under Harris’ bill, HB1112, drivers who kill vulnerable road users–a category that includes pedestrians, bicyclists, and others–can be convicted of a new gross misdemeanor. Penalties include up to a year in jail, a fine of $5,000 (not to be reduced under $1,000), and a mandatory loss of driving privileges for 90 days.
Representative Harris’ office provided the following statement to the Landmine:
“Rep. Harris introduced this legislation last year because a constituent came to him with a tragic story. He lost his daughter in a freak accident. The driver claimed to be swatting at a bug when he ran over this young woman. He simply paid a fine and walked away. It didn’t matter that he took a life. Before this law passed, a person could get into a car, swat at a bug, and run over a mailbox. They could pay a $250 fine and be done. The problem is the same rules applied even if they ended up killing another human being. That’s not right. Judges needed to be able to reconsider the facts of these kinds of cases and impose penalties that closer fit the crime.”
HB1112 received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Washington legislature. The bill passed initially passed 89-11 in the House, and after several modifications, ultimately passed 89-0 in the Senate and 96-0 (with two excused) in the House. Governor Jay Inslee (D – Washington) signed the bill into law on May 16, 2023.
The bill becomes law in Washington State on January 1, 2025.