Pedestrian accident

A photo from the scene of an accident Monday night at South Washington and Gold streets in downtown Sonora where a couple was struck by a suspected drunk driver while crossing the road.

When Lance and Buffy French stepped into South Washington Street to cross at Gold Street Monday night, they said they believed they were safe because an oncoming southbound vehicle was 10 to 11 car lengths away.

But when they were nearly in the center of the road, Lance French heard the distinctive sound of a vehicle accelerating, not slowing down. With only seconds to react, he tried to push his wife out of the way of the vehicle and faced the oncoming lights.

The only thing Lance French could think of before the vehicle clipped his prosthetic leg and launched his wife five feet in the air and almost 10 feet away was, "This is going to hurt."

"I got up this morning and I could barely move,” said Lance French, 55 of Jamestown. “I don't know how he couldn't see us. We knew there was plenty of time to step out in the road, so I don't know how this could have happened."

Lance French's daughter Stephany Cullens, 28 of Sonora, said her stepmom Buffy French, 49, sustained a broken shoulder, eight broken ribs and a broken foot and was treated later at a hospital in Modesto.

"He just slammed into them," she said. "There was blood everywhere."

Lance French visited the hospital on Tuesday for ongoing pain in the morning and said besides a bruised backside which would hurt him for a while, he was fine.

The couple was still reeling from the violent collision the next day, Lance French said, because the crash happened so suddenly and so unexpectedly. They were on a temporary local vacation in the Heritage Inn before the collision and had planned to cross the street to the 76 gas station for soda and ice cream. 

Lance French said his wife was on his left side before the collision and, because of his mobility issues and rapidity of the crash, he was not able to push her out of the way in time.

Just after the collision, his wife and bystanders were screaming. 

Lance French said he saw the driver jump out of his car, then immediately get back in. The driver pulled off to the side and was angled crooked in the road.

Lance French went to his wife and lost track of much of what was happening around him. Some drivers exited their vehicles and stopped traffic to keep them from being hit by more oncoming drivers. One woman screamed to "get out of the road," Lance French said, but another driver yelled back at her that they shouldn’t move until law enforcement arrived.

Within five to seven minutes, the ambulances and Sonora Police Department all appeared to arrive at the same time, Lance French said.

According to a press release from the Sonora Police Department, officers were dispatched to the collision at 6:54 p.m. on South Washington Street near Gold Street.

Shawn Azkaria Harris, 41, of Crystal Falls Drive in Sonora, was driving a 2005 Dodge Neon and was contacted at the scene. A news release stated officers smelled the scent of an alcoholic beverage coming from him. During a subsequent field sobriety test, the officers believed he was driving under the influence.

Suspected drugs and drug paraphernalia were located during a search of Harris’ vehicle, the release said.

According to Tuolumne County Sheriff's booking logs, Harris is a mechanic and was booked on suspicion of felony driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury, felony driving under the influence with a BAC of more than .08 and the misdemeanor charges of possession of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance paraphernalia.

He was booked with a bail of $25,000 and had bonded out of custody by Tuesday morning.

Lance French said he watched law enforcement take the driver up the road and out of his view, even though he retreated to the second floor of the Heritage Inn after his wife was dispatched in an ambulance. A short time later, he saw the driver of the vehicle in handcuffs. 

"The police were professional and treated us very well," he said.

Later, Lance French texted one of his daughters about the collision and then called Cullens. 

"At the time, we didn't know if she was stable or how severe the injuries were," Cullens said. 

It took hours until they heard back that she was OK and had survived the collision.

The crash has renewed conversations about pedestrian safety in downtown Sonora, which has seen a spate of pedestrian and bicyclist collisions over the past decade that have sometimes resulted in death.

"I think there's a lot of people that get run over here," Lance French said. "There could be lights on the crosswalks. Even if you're drunk, it might get your attention. I know people that were hit even in the day time. What are we going to do about this?"

Cullens added that, despite the driver being under the influence, nighttime visibility throughout the downtown area is an obstacle to pedestrian safety.

"At night, there's bad lighting,” Cullens said. “Just in general, downtown could definitely use something like the flashing lights in the crosswalk. In general, definitely that is needed. Those crosswalks are not very safe, it's a high traffic area.”

Columbia resident Richard Haratani was hit on July 9 when attempting to cross Stockton Road on South Washington Street from the Bank of America toward the Sonora Inn.

"I was waiting on the edge of the curb, and there was a full sized white new truck sitting at that intersection waiting to turn right,” he said. “I'm watching the pedestrian light and it turned green to walk and, because of my health condition, I have to watch where I step and make sure I don't lose my balance. I'm watching what I'm doing, and I'm three steps in front of the truck. Then he knocked me down."

Haratani broke a small metatarsal in his foot from the collision.

"I dont think it's safe anytime because of distracted drivers and intoxicated drivers,” he said. “It's on the pedestrian more and more to be active, be visible. It's really now crucial to assume they're not going to be seen by traffic. It just takes one distracted moment.

Caltrans, a state road agency that manages the bustling and traffic prone thoroughfare of Highway 49/South Washington Street, told The Union Democrat in 2017 there were 17 collisions between vehicles and pedestrians or vehicles and bicycles between 2010 and 2014 in the downtown area, which includes unidentified side streets off of Highway 49.

The information compiled did not include pedestrian accidents that occured on the city managed road of South Washington Street between the intersection with Stockton Road and Highway 108, such as where the collision occurred Monday night.

No one from Caltrans or the Sonora Police Department could be reached Tuesday for updated statistics.

The collisions in recent years have been spread throughout town and can sometimes be fatal.

On Jan. 29, 2015, a woman was struck by a hit-and-run vehicle crossing Bradford Street on South Washington Street, and a woman was killed on March 7, 2015, on Stockton Road while walking alongside the highway after the Sonora Celtic Faire. 

A man sustained major injuries on Jan. 13, 2016, in the crosswalk on Restano Way and Mono Way when he was struck by a vehicle and his head and face hit the windshield. 

A Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office chaplain in a Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Community Service 2013 Chevy pickup truck hit and injured a 10-year-old on a bicycle crossing Stockton Road at South Washington Street in July 2017.

Tony Ortega, 38, of Sonora, was hit and killed by a vehicle on Stockton Road in November 2017 while he crossed the street outside of a marked crosswalk near the Mother Lode Fairgrounds at night.

Larry Hunter, a homeless man living in the camps off Highway 49, was hit while riding a bicycle in January 2019. 

The collisions have prompted some institutional discussions of new safety measures in the downtown area, such as lit-up crosswalks, brighter, glossier white paint on the ribs of the crosswalk or bulb-outs for street parking to improve the visibility of drivers.

The California Highway Patrol has conducted traffic studies and traffic stings in recent years to promote pedestrian safety and educate the public about the proper right-of-way for pedestrians who are inside the crosswalk in the highway.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at gricapito@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 588-4526.

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