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No criminal charges for driver in Phyllis Seidman fatality

Original post made on Feb 4, 2009

No charges will be filed against the driver who struck and killed Phyllis Seidman Dec. 2. The decision was reached following an investigation by Palo Alto police and a review of the case by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office. ==B Related stories:==
==B o== [Web Link Phyllis Seidman fatally injured by car in Palo Alto]

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, February 4, 2009, 9:34 AM

Comments (35)

Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 4, 2009 at 10:37 am

If a car driver kills a pedestrian or bicyclist and says the magic words "I did not see him or her", then the police will let them off almost all the time. It does not matter if the pedestrian or bicyclist was legally using the road and has the legal right of way.


Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 4, 2009 at 11:22 am

Come off it Greg. This is not because the driver said "I did not see her". This is because there were no witnesses to say who was at fault.

I know many car drivers make mistakes, but pedestrians do make mistakes too. I am not saying that this was the case here, but I do know that pedestrians walk around with the attitude that cars "must stop for me because I am a pedestrian" and don't bother to look or even worse, walk in front of a car already in an intersection just to make them stop.

As a frequent pedestrian, I always look and remember that I can stop much quicker than a car can and it makes sense to wait til its safe to cross letting one car go by rather than always quote the law.

Pedestrians do have a right to cross a street, but they also do have the ability to watch out for their own safety.

I feel sure that the driver of the car and her son will carry the pain of this day with them forever. I hope we can all learn from this and also that the City puts up right turn only signs at all these intersections on Embarcadero.


Posted by Solon
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 4, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Note, CIty of Palo ALto is quite possibly liable, for signage, intersection design, and failure to specify right turn only on Cowper! as an engineer should!

What is her name? Isn't that public record?

What is the reconstruction of how it happened?

What part of the car struck what part of the chair first?

What is the definition of intersection?

NO ONE should try to 'shoot' across Embarcadero, that itself is near per se negligence, for you have to pay so much attention to speeders in two directions, how could you even look for pedestrians.

Isn't the police report a public record if no crime is charged?

I thank those in advance who are able and willing to answer these questions.


Posted by YouShouldKnow
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 4, 2009 at 1:30 pm

I hope this story stands as a cautionary tale to some mothers out there. I realize this womans kid was 10, regardless there is a phenomena out there I have experienced both up close and personal and as a more distant observer.

We are in our vehicles so much a certain amount of driving becomes to feel like an extension of ourselves. Once we get very used to doing something we think we have it mastered.

This is human nature. Combine that though, with something I have noticed more and more of over the years, the combination can turn deadly.

What I have noticed is, in this age of instant gratification, mothers (and some dads) that can't seem to stop paying more attention to their kids than on the task of driving! I have a friend who was forever turning around to her child in the backseat giving the kid everything from water, to crackers, to toys to later, crayons. It got so bad that after she twice rear ended someone I stopped riding in her car! She STILL does it and the kid is a teen now. She wasn't the only one, other mothers in her group did the same thing! I drive next to parents whom I see handing all sorts of things over the seat, turning around to look at backseat kids. Another time, I was driving to SF and watched a dad in a sedan who had a stuffed animal in his hand while he was driving and he was making it 'dance' while he kept turning around to look at the kid in the carseat. I remember clearly because I was right behind him watching the 'show' and a witness when HE turned back too late had solidly whapped the car in front of him. That one was bad.

If you are running around town you are 5 minutes from water, food, potty. If your kid cries for a minute, it won't kill them. They won't starve, they won't die of thirst. They won't wind up in a therapists office someday squawking that mommy didn't love them because you didn't give them your rapt eye to eye attention while you were driving!

A split second glance even in the rearview can be all it takes for a tragedy to happen! I mean sometimes we all get distracted, but really, the kid(s) can wait! If there seems to be something urgent, then pull safely over to a side street or parking lot and then you can tend to your child. The kid and the random pedestrian will thank you for it! And yes, I had kids and yes, I taught them the value of patience and ues, if it was urgent I pulled off the road. My kids grew up strong, healthy and loved even if they were momentarily denied!


Posted by old palo alto resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 4, 2009 at 2:19 pm

I think the real problem is that driving sometimes takes the lowest priority in the driver's attention. People seem to feel that they need distraction to prevent boredom because they think that driving does not take any concentration. So cell phone, putting on makeup, shaving, reading the newspaper, etc. are o.k. . We have forgotten that we are driving 3000 pound potential death machines. I really hope that people wake up to that reality, and develop some empathy.


Posted by Justme
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 4, 2009 at 2:54 pm

I normally drive my daughters to work every day, and in the process I have to make a left turn from Channing onto Newell, which has a light but I still consider to be a bad intersection.

The other day, I waited patiently for through-traffic to pass me, sitting in the intersection with a green light. There were a bunch of cars lined up waiting to turn left in front of me, and I had already turned the wheel in preparation for scooting when I got the chance. After studdying the cars facing me for a moment and determining that none were going to come through the intersection, I started forward with my turn, only to discover a woman and kid in the crosswalk in front of me. The way I was sitting, they were behind the post on the side of my windshield until I started to move. I didn't go more than a couple feet, and I stopped immediately when I saw them, and it was never a close call, though it apparently startled them, understandably. I was glad I was being so cautous.

However, the woman's reaction was to first flinch, then run back directly in front of me and stand there shouting at me to "SLOW DOWN". (Of course I couldn't, I was stopped, you can't slow down from that.) I found her agressive and accusatory reaction to be totally uncalled for, and of course it slowed the clearing of the intersection for just that much longer. But I was most disturbed that her hysterics made it look like I was a maniac driver who almost killed them. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.

After she departed in a flurry of ruffled feathers, I completed my turn and drove 25 MPH to the next school I had to visit. But the episode has bothered me because this woman made a big issue out of essentially nothing. I wish I could chat with her.

I drive 25 MPH on residential streets, including Embarcadaro. I am peeved by speeders endangering our kids. I don't like being cast with that lot.


Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 4, 2009 at 2:58 pm

The media continues to refuse to identify the SUV driver. Anyone know why? Is she connected?


Posted by YouShouldKnow
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 4, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Exactly my thought OPR! And resident, you have a good thought too. I remember when I was a kid growing up in NY and my dad had a business trip here he came home telling us how if a person even stepped one foot off the curb in SF cars would immediately stop! Working in Manhattan it was really a surprising experience! In NY pedestrians dash and dodge. Here people take their time crossing streets. Downtown Palo Alto I see pedestrians wandering across intersections so slowly and oblivious I think they are stoned! I swear some of them are counting my tire treads! My momma taught me get across that intersection swiftly and safely!

You can have right of way entitlement all you want, but I'd rather just pick the safe spot and move my ass quickly as possible across the street.It's all about common sense.

I'm not saying that is what happened here, but it does happen a lot in other cases. Traffic is nothing to mess with.

By the way, do I remember correctly that Ms. Seidman had a flag attached to her chair?


Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 4, 2009 at 3:41 pm

This episode of a vehicle hitting and killing a wheelchair-riding woman crossing at an intersection is compelling. To my recollection, usually the news media does identify the driver of a vehicle in a case such as this. It certainly surprises me that the driver has not been charged with inattention, at least, if not reckless driving, manslaughter...makes one wonder who this VIP woman driver is. I don't believe others would necessarily be treated so kindly, not even identified publicly.


Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 4, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Ms. Seidman did not have a flag or wear a helmut. The only reason I bring it up is because my kids and I saw here the very day on North California in the bike lane. I actually did not see her...my kids pointed her out and noted that she should probably have a helmut. I think once her dog passed she became a bit difficult to see. Not that that is an excuse for what happened. It is more that unfortunately you can not assume that someone sees you.

It is all very very sad. I also think it is very sad the way in which some want to vilify the driver of the car. Instead of hunting this woman down a better use of time would be to actually change the intersection. There have been some very good ideas about not allowing people to cross Embarcadaro, especially during such busy times of the day.


Posted by YouShouldKnow
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 4, 2009 at 5:54 pm

I agree about the driver. Without all the facts we cannot judge. We would not wish to BE judged either!


Posted by Name Please!
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 4, 2009 at 6:44 pm

It's not like the *driver* was the victim of a crime, such as rape, or a a suicide, which now has privacy laws. I hope the driver isn't still on the road?


Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
editor emeritus
on Feb 4, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

The police did not initially release the name of the woman driver of the SUV pending outcome of the investigation into the collision, although I see no reason why her name could not have been released or reported. The focus simply was on Phyllis Seidman and her condition and, finally, her death.

As the investigation continued for some time and no charges were filed after what seems like a thorough review that included the Santa Clara County Ditrict Attorney's office, I wonder if printing her name is that relevant, or simply a matter of someone wanting to publicly reveal and excoriate her. Had charges been filed, her name would have been directly relevant, of course.

I find it a bit odd that some people immediately jump to conspiracy theories, though. Neither I nor our reporters or other editors know the name of the woman, and doubt very much that who she was or whom she knew played any role in whether her name should be released.




Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 4, 2009 at 9:11 pm

In every other suspicious killing that I have ever read about in the media, the victim and suspect were named by the media long before charges (if any) were announced. For example, the BART police officer's name was released long before he was charged with murder, and many people thought that even waiting a couple of days to release his name was special treatment for a police officer. I don't think anyone is out to do any harm to the SUV driver, but the way this case is being handled seems very unusual.


Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 4, 2009 at 10:05 pm

In our country we have a "might makes right" mentality with regards to traffic liability. The general feeling is that small and vulnerable road users should get out of the way of larger ones. In many European countries the philosophy is the opposite: the larger your vehicle the more careful you must be. This is embodied in "strict liability" laws which state that in a crash between a "strong" and a "weak" road user, the strong user is considered to be at fault unless he/she can prove innocence or blatant misconduct by the weak (and presumably injured) party. This law has a profound effect on driver's thought processes and attitudes. Imagine how different our road environments would be if we had laws like this. In the case being discussed the driver would be presumed at fault unless there was evidence or witness reports to clear her, instead of the opposite. Imagine how much more carefully people would drive if they knew they would be held fully accountable for their actions. Imagine that people might actually choose to walk or bike because they would consider it less risky and more responsible! We take far too much for granted in our country, and it doesn't have to be that way. Death by automobile is not a necessary part of modern life, it is only that way because we choose to make it so.


Posted by YouShouldKnow
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 5, 2009 at 12:27 am

I do believe cyclists need to stay off the railroad track lane of Alma. The lane is only wide enough to safely accommodate a car. If debris is kicked off the track area, and a cyclist hits it and goes down (which I've seen), a motorist may hit him/her. During heavy traffic, it is dangerous for vehicles to veer partially out of the lane to swerve around a cyclist. Same reasons bicycles aren't allowed on 101. It wouldn't be terribly fair to the motorist in this case. It's a simple reality that might DOES make right at times. There are hundreds of streets cyclists can use in with more safety, please use logic and take a good hard look at Alma before you use it. Also, if you are going to be stubborn and persist in your entitlement, then please wear a HELMET!


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 5, 2009 at 3:35 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

I believe wheelchairs and personal mobility devices and low rider bikes should have a high visibility pennant and a blinking light at night, at or above 6 feet agl.


Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 5, 2009 at 5:30 am

Getting off topic, but as a cyclist I find southbound Alma very attractive especially with the prevailing afternoon tailwind. Homer to San Antonio in 12 to 15 minutes. Total of 3 traffic lights. No further cross traffic other than the ramps at Oregon. Drivers coming from behind have plenty of time to see me and adjust position if needed, even when on their cell phones. Those well over the max speed limit are generally in the left lane.
An alternative might be Bryant. Count them, 25 intersections, none of which can be breezed through safely at 20 mph. And that peters out well before reaching Mountain View. Using Middlefield or El Camino is asking for trouble. Cars just come from too many directions at once.
Back on-topic, regarding releasing names, "I don't think anyone is out to do any harm to the SUV driver", doesn't rule out the vandals who often materialize, or the attention seeker who paints a placard and starts picketing the person's driveway. No good can come of it.
Night driving/cycling/walking is a whole nother subject. Misaligned headlights or highbeams coming at a driver renders everything else ahead invisible. A cyclist or pedestrian on or crossing a roadway must recognize that drivers can be momentarily blinded. We can discuss this when the next nighttime accident makes headlines.


Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 5, 2009 at 6:20 am

YouShouldKnow says "it is dangerous for vehicles to veer partially out of the lane to swerve around a cyclist". Here is something that YOU should know: the maneuver you described is illegal. You are required to drive your car completely within one lane, not straddling two. The other point is that nothing is forcing you to pass at all except your own impatience. Again, your argument shows that you consider the speed and convenience of drivers to be supreme, which is the root of the problem. Musical makes good points, too: the same things that make Alma attractive to drivers can make it attractive to bicyclists. Both have equal rights to use the road, and the convenience of one should not rule over the other. If drivers behaved themselves there would be no problem with bicyclists safely using Alma.

The original thread was about a wheelchair user legally crossing in a crosswalk. Would you have asked her to go blocks out of her way to avoid possibly inconveniencing a driver who might have to wait for her to cross the street?


Posted by Jim
a resident of another community
on Feb 5, 2009 at 8:32 am

I almost hit a guy on a bike on Alma, going north near Page Mill. The car in front of me suddenly swerved into the left lane, revealing a hidden bicycist in the middle of the lane in front of me. I couldn't make the same quick lane change because there was already a car next to me. I had to slam the brakes to avoid rear-ending the bike. I couldn't believe that someone was actually riding their bike in traffic on Alma.


Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 5, 2009 at 9:00 am

If all the bikes that use Bryant every morning between 7.30 and 8.00 am (the Paly crowd plus others) decided to use Alma instead, then in effect you would be turning Alma into a one lane road for cars.

As it is, many of the bikes do not stop at stop signs on Bryant. That is also dangerous.

Bike routes are not a priority in Palo Alto. For those who think PA is wonderful for biking, you are very wrong. Try looking at Europe, Holland in particular, if you want to see how bike routes should be treated.


Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 5, 2009 at 9:29 am

Short clarification: I would NOT recommended Alma for novice cyclists. Some yoyo out there really could be a hazard to everyone and give all cyclists a bad reputation, just as poor or inexperienced drivers can get into traffic over their heads and create hazards for all nearby. We are all told that driving is a privilege, not a right. Part of it is sharing the road with those of lesser abilities, and part is recognizing our own limitations (lack of sleep, distraction, impatience, propensity to tailgate). Fortunately most of us drive hundreds of thousands of miles with little damage.
The national motor vehicle fatality rate is 1 per 70 million miles driven. 1 per 500 million looking at just pedestrians and bicyclists. Phyllis Seidman reminded us that it's still one too many.


Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 5, 2009 at 10:15 am

Pedestrians and bicyclists often don't realize that they're practically invisible in the dark -- particularly when they're wearing dark clothes.

Dog-walkers and runners often cross in the middle of a block (vs. in a cross-walk). A runner bolted out of nowhere on Greer Road not long ago and practically ran into the side of my car as he crossed behind me.

Many bicyclists don't have any lights or rely just on pedal reflectors. The smart ones wear reflector vests and have large flashing lights front and rear.

I agree that there are lots of agressive drivers out there, but pedestrians and cyclists have to take responsibility for their own safety.


Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 5, 2009 at 11:16 am

Please try to stick to the original subject, which is very tragic. If you want to discuss something else, you can easily create a new subject in this forum.


Posted by YouShouldKnow
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 5, 2009 at 2:29 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
Are you implying that during heavy use traffic times if I cannot get into the fast lane, like as Alma nears E. Meadow during rush hour, I should just plod along slowly behind the cyclist until there is a break? No! I don't think so. I see plenty of cyclists also using the sidewalk on Alma. Whether that is legal or not is moot because it is safer, people DO it, and they can go around the few people walking. I don't want about legality or illegality when all of Bryant was revised for the use of cyclists yet I see very few of them obeying the stop signs.

1. it is not illegal to swerve to avoid hitting someone.

2. The bike has more options for mobility than the car. Use 'em.

No, Ms. Seidman should not have had to go somewhere else, but the conversation embraces safety issues using Palo Alto streets and possible scenarios we need to take into account when driving.


Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 5, 2009 at 6:32 pm

If you have to swerve suddenly to avoid hitting someone you may well be found guilty of driving too fast for conditions.

Bicyclists often hear, particularly of roads in the mountains, "Road X is too dangerous for bikes and they should go somewhere else". Of course the road itself is not the problem. What this really means is "Drivers on Road X drive in a way that is dangerous for bikes and are not willing to change". I have heard of people complain that they are tired of coming around blind turns and being surprised by a bike there. These drivers are driving in denial of the existence of bicyclists. Is the solution to remove the bikes or to remove the surprise? If drivers acknowledged bikes right to the road and anticipated their presence there by driving in a manner that is safe in the presence of bicyclists, EVEN BEFORE THEY ACTUALLY SEE ONE, then the problem would go away. Too many people, though, are just not willing to do that. They continue to drive in a manner that is dangerous in the presence of bikes and then complain that it is dangerous when they encounter bikes. The safety issue is caused by these drivers attitudes, but they blame others and expect to be able to drive in denial of the existence and rights of others. YouShouldKnow is a perfect example of this kind of thinking.


Posted by Sue
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 5, 2009 at 10:41 pm

This is true what is stated above. I almost hit a lady walking with a baby carriage when I was ready to make a left turn into a street. She didn't even look or didn't seem to think she needed to stop and use any smarts. And I barely saw her because of the way the sun was hitting my windshield.

Yes pedestrians you do have the right away, but don't forget to use common safety sense and stop before you cross instead of just walking out and assuming that that person in the 2-4 ton vehicle sees you. Better to use good sense than to just boldly walk on because you have the right of way. The driver doesn't want to hit you but if it happens you more than likely will be the one dead.

People have a lot of arrogance these days, but just don't have a lot of sense. It's a sign of our times. Arrogance won't save you, nor will the lawyers that come after the driver once you are dead. So start paying attention.


Posted by Lara
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 6, 2009 at 1:39 pm

I'm really surprised at how willing people are to jump
to the conclusion that the driver was at fault here, when we really have no idea what happened. The only thing we know for sure is that she behaved completely responsibly as soon as she realized she had hit someone. I'm sure she feels terrible. And the thing is, even the most responsible and attentive driver is going to make a mistake sometimes. Most of the time, thankfully, those mistakes aren't fatal, but to some extent that's just a matter of chance. Can the people who are jumping all over the driver and saying she should be charged with manslaughter really claim they've never made a driving error - one that could have harmed someone if the circumstances had been a little different?
Of course, some drivers really are being negligent, but I don't see why that's the assumption in this case.

Regarding the bicyclists - I agree that they really don't belong on Alma. Yes, they technically have the right to be there, but the point about a driver being unable to see a cyclist in their lane if there's a car in between is valid. Even if you're not speeding on Alma, you're going faster than a bike, so you can find yourself coming up on one from behind pretty fast and have to slam on the brakes. At the very least it's scary, and sometimes it's dangerous.

Furthermore, one bicyclist riding the length of Alma inconveniences not one but many cars, because an entire lane is effectively removed from use. MANY cars have to get over and traffic slows for everyone (except the almighty bicyclist). Okay, I could creep along behind the bicyclist for miles, but the entire point of taking Alma is that it's one of the few streets in Palo Alto where it's legal for me to drive significantly faster than that. And in my experience bicyclists don't really like having a line of cars on their tails. Why does the convenience of a single bicyclist who wants to use Alma trump that of twenty (or however many) drivers? The vast majority of streets in Palo Alto can be used by bicyclists without scaring and slowing down drivers, and I am very happy to yield to bicyclists on all of those.

And finally, drivers' goodwill towards cyclists would be a lot of greater if cyclists would follow the rules of the road. Many cyclists don't stop at stop signs or lights and don't signal turns. It often seems like they want all the priveleges of cars and none of the responsibilites. I realize not all cyclists are like that, and cyclists' breaking rules doesn't excuse the same on the part of drivers, but drivers would sure resent them less if more of them cycled responsibly.


Posted by TwoSides
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 6, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Great Comment Sue, I second it heartily! Arguing your right of way while pinned under the bumper of a Bmer is never recommended!


Posted by new cyclists
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 6, 2009 at 2:44 pm

But cars are lethal weapons and (generally speaking) bicycles are not. The person with the weapon has the responsibility.


Posted by Lara
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 6, 2009 at 2:51 pm

So are you arguing that bicyclists and pedestrians can do whatever they want and bear no responsibility for the consequences? What if a pedestrian jumps out from behind a bush into the path of a car going 35 mph?
The person with the car probably does have more than half of the responsibility. But I don't think it makes sense to argue that bicyclists and pedestrians bear no responsibility for keeping themselves out of harm's way.


Posted by Geoff
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 6, 2009 at 5:30 pm

TwoSides writes: Arguing your right of way while pinned under the bumper of a Bmer is never recommended!

The "might-makes-right" argument is tiresome, arrogant and hostile. From this type of comment, what "two sides" are you thinking of since it's pretty clear you only see one.

Cyclists and motorists have the responsibility to follow traffic laws and be mindful, attentive and respectful to other road users around them. Is that enough said?


Posted by Donald
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 6, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Nobody here has suggested that pedestrians and bicyclists don't need to be prudent and act with due caution and within the law. The point is that the biggest danger comes from cars and we should expect the car driver to mitigate the hazard from his/her vehicle by driving safely rather than expecting others to mitigate the danger by staying away. Everyone needs to be careful, and the bigger your vehicle the more careful you must be. That is the essence of the strict liability idea.


Posted by dubious
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 7, 2009 at 9:30 pm

i believe the comment about arguing under a bmer is irony. i think that advice on here is pretty solid and makes sense. it really comes down to paying attention to your surroundings. you need to know when you are outgunned!


Posted by Geoff
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 8, 2009 at 8:33 am

The comment about arguing from under a Bmer being *irony* certainly is dubious unless you're arguing only from the viewpoint of having more "gun" power places you in the "right". Otherwise, it is menacing and a threat.

As I stated, all users of the road should be attentive, mindful and respectful to other road users - this includes knowing when one is holding up traffic and taking action to not put oneself in that situation, if possible and safe to do so, but also means not being threatening towards others just b/c one is larger or more powerful.


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