Drivers relive fatal moment — Pedestrian deaths leave lingering effects

This story was published on page A1 of The Advocate on March 6, 2012. 

Photo by Libby Isenhower, The Advocate — The Rev. James Cowell says his church congregation has helped him heal since unintentionally killing a man three weeks ago.

The Rev. James Cowell, of Walker, ran over and killed a man with his truck three weeks ago.

While police said the shirtless man dove in front of Cowell’s truck at the last second, thus making the accident unavoidable, Cowell, 46, says he will be haunted by that fateful moment — the eye contact, the screeching brakes, the sight of the dead man’s body under his truck — for the rest of his life.

“The fact of the matter is I basically killed that man,” Cowell said, a week after the Feb. 9 accident. “I can’t describe how it feels other than complete shock and disbelief.”

It is a scenario that plays out twice almost every week in Louisiana: a sober driver usually traveling down a dark highway who doesn’t see the pedestrian until the last second before impact, if at all.

Of the 272 drivers who struck and killed a pedestrian in Louisiana since Jan. 1, 2009, 233 were not issued a citation, according to data compiled by Dr. Helmut Schneider, director of LSU Highway Safety Research Group.

Last year, at least 74 drivers were not at fault in the deaths of the pedestrians they struck with their vehicles, according to Schneider’s data.

That number could be even higher, Schneider said. Many drivers who were issued citations could have been found in violation of something menial, such as an expired inspection sticker, and not at fault in the death of the pedestrian they hit.

“Most pedestrian fatalities are the pedestrian’s fault for stepping in front of the car,” Schneider said.

Alcohol impairment and suicide are generally considered the two likeliest reasons a pedestrian might end up in the path of a moving car, said Russell Graham, a spokesman for the State Police.

Twenty-four of the 107 pedestrians killed in Louisiana in 2009 were found to have been drunk or otherwise “impaired”; 33 had been “improperly crossing” the roadway; and 14 had “darted or run” into the road, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Darkness does not help. In Louisiana, a fatal pedestrian accident is four times more likely to occur during the hours of 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. than during daylight hours, the NHTSA data shows.

The innocent drivers often feel overwhelmed both with guilt and anger directed at the pedestrian for having put themselves in harm’s way, said Kathy Vilas, director of the Baton Rouge Grief Recovery Center.

“It just highlights how things can change in an instant even when you’re doing all the right things,” Vilas said. “You are responsible for someone’s death and yet you were doing everything you were supposed to do: You had your headlights on, you were driving the speed limit and so on.”

Graham said that troopers who respond to these types of accidents are troubled by the fact that no one will ever know if the pedestrian intentionally jumped in front of the vehicle.

“You just can’t know it was a suicide for sure unless they leave a note or something,” Graham said. “The pedestrian might’ve been trying to kill himself or just drunk and didn’t know where he was going. You just never know.”

Those uncertainties haunt both the drivers and the families of the deceased.

“It’s very, very hard not knowing what happened,” said Tillie Carson, 92, the grandmother of Darwin Carson, 47, the man Cowell struck. “I don’t know who would know; I don’t know if anyone really does know. There was no witnesses. It’s just a blank place there with nothing to ever fill it in.”

Darwin Carson had seemed mentally “OK” just three days before the accident when his grandmother spoke to him, she said. A carpenter by trade, Darwin Carson had planned to move to Birmingham, Ala., to find work repairing homes damaged in the recent tornados, she said.

“It’s hard to accept,” she said. “It’s devastating.”

For the drivers, those unknown variables surrounding the accident’s cause can be equally heartbreaking, Vilas said.

“The guilt is overwhelming,” Vilas said. “People typically don’t eat, don’t sleep. They play through all the what-ifs and play it over and over in their heads and some really beat themselves up with it.”

Julius Mire of Baton Rouge was 67 in 2005 when a Pontchatoula man stepped in front of his Toyota sedan on Interstate 12 about 10 p.m. Mire was not at fault in the man’s death, police said at the time.

Now Mire, a retired Conoco Oil Co. worker, said he has learned to cope with the daily memory of hitting and killing the 63-year-old man seven years ago.

“I’ll never forget that night,” Mire said when reached by telephone recently. “All you can do is just go on and live your life as you can.”

“It was an unavoidable accident,””he added. “It can happen to anyone.”

Cowell said he kept replaying those fateful seconds over and over in his head — he was driving 45 miles per hour at about 7 p.m., winding down La. 16 in Denham Springs — each time trying to imagine a way to avoid killing the man in the middle of the road.

“Part of that was trying to think if there were any way with the actions he took, if I had swerved to the left, maybe I could’ve missed him,” he said.

“There’s no way, with the timing and the proximity, I could’ve swerved and missed him,” he said. “It would’ve been impossible. I’m convinced and satisfied now that there wasn’t a way out.”

Cowell said he thought the man he killed had been trying to commit suicide because he had actively crawled on his hands and knees, and at the last second, dove into the path of his truck.

State troopers found evidence at the scene to corroborate Cowell’s account, Graham said.

That night, Cowell said, the troopers told him that dust on his bumper was left undisturbed, indicating the man had been lying flat at the moment of impact.

“One of the things that chills me most is the look on his face when he looked back at me,” Cowell said. “He didn’t have a look of fright or terror that you’d expect someone to have in a situation that was very dangerous. It was almost like a casual glance.”

Cowell said he prayed the man he killed was now in a better place.

“I hate the way this sounds, but it’s the best way I can say it: nobody in their right mind would take the actions he took,” Cowell said.

Before they left the scene, Cowell said, one officer grabbed his shoulders, looked him in the eye and said, “‘Listen, get it through your skull, this is not your fault. There was nothing you could have done to prevent this. He caused the accident. It was totally unavoidable. If it wasn’t, if you were at fault, you’d be in handcuffs in the backseat of my car.’”

Cowell’s wife of 23 years, Danna, said she had hardly ever seen him cry before the accident.

“Now, he’ll just be walking through the house, or doing the dishes, and just break down crying,” Danna Cowell said.

To Cowell and other innocent drivers like him, Mire offered encouragement.

“It does get better with time,”” he said.

Vilas agreed, saying that the first year is generally the hardest. After that, she said, the driver will learn to manage the grief, and the flashbacks will subside.

For now, Cowell is focused on spending time with his family and his True Light Baptist Church congregation, a support system he said he feels a renewed sense of gratitude to have.

“I’m gonna be okay,” he said. “Sooner rather than later, I hope, but I’m gonna be okay.”

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