Always combining his experience as an attorney and journalist, Steve Ringhoff has an ongoing interest in law and justice. Below, while investigating a horrible accident, he looks closely at LaGrange Road, transecting parts of western Tuolumne County and eastern Stanislaus County, the primary feeder route for drivers between foothill communities and Southern California.
It was Trista’s turn to drive. It was a school day—a Friday, October 21, 2016—so, when Trista Hoffman, 16, her brother, Dillon, a year older, and a classmate, Annie Johnson, poured out of the Sonora High School bus, Trista headed for the driver’s seat of the family’s Lexus SUV. She had a learner’s permit, as did her brother. Their mother, Tina, let them take turns driving. It was Trista’s turn to drive home.
Trista got behind the wheel at the junction of Highway 108 and the north end of LaGrange Road. The route took them about 13 miles through Tuolumne County and 3 miles into Stanislaus County before intersecting with Highway 132, just west of LaGrange.
But they would make it only about 11 miles.
Coming north after a visit with family in Southern California, was Dr. Danny Anderson, a Sonora physician. His wife, Diane, was the only passenger. Dr. Anderson was very familiar with this road, having driven it often to visit relatives in Los Angeles.
Near Bonds Flat Road, Dr. Anderson pulled out and passed. The two vehicles ahead of him were moving substantially slower than the posted speed limit of 55. This pass was clearly illegal because of the double yellow center striping on the road.
At the criminal trial that followed, a Sonora jury found Dr. Anderson responsible for causing Trista to swerve to her right, then back to her left, ultimately colliding with a northbound vehicle. Trista and her mother were killed, as was a passenger in that oncoming car, John Reinholdt Eisemann, driven by his wife, Dorothy. Dillon, Annie and Mrs. Eisemann were seriously injured.
Questioned later by investigators Dr. Anderson admitted making the pass but maintained the pass did not cause the crash. Dr. Anderson is serving a 5-year prison term.
It was a comment Dr. Anderson made to investigators which piqued interest in the roadway markings. He said the section of road, where he attempted to make his pass, “used to be,” marked for passing.
Dr. Anderson was right. Google Earth aerial photos from before a repaving and restriping project in 2010-2011 showed broken yellow lines allowing passing there and at other sections of the 13 miles of LaGrange Road in Tuolumne County.
Repaved and restriped, there are now double yellow lines with a rumble strip between them, meant to prohibit passing for the entire 13 mile stretch in Tuolumne County. There are also no sections of “passing lanes,” where there are three lanes to allow passing. In contrast, there are broken yellow center line sections and one “passing lane” in the three miles of LaGrange Road from Highway 132 north to the Tuolumne County line.
At the Tuolumne/Stanislaus County line someone has spray painted the word SAFE in white, with an arrow pointing north into the Tuolumne County section. But it may not be.
(To put this into a more local perspective, this stretch of road is equivalent in length to Highway 132 (Maze Boulevard) from downtown Modesto out west all the way to Kasson/River Road, that newly signalized intersection west of the San Joaquin River bridge.)
What the motoring public will do. Traffic engineers understand that controls perceived by the motoring public as unreasonable will be ignored. If you set the speed limit too low, you will not get compliance. And if, especially on roadway with a mix of traffic (truck, recreational vehicles etc.), people will pass over double yellow lines where they see what they think is enough distance to do it safely.
This engineering understanding is reflected in a “presumption” in manuals which dictate striping on roadways. After LaGrange Road was repaved and re-striped, there were questions about the center line markings. County public works department employees were quoted in the Sonora paper as saying that the “state manual” required it.
There are two manuals used by the state. One is called the “Highway Design Manual” and the other the “California Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).” The design manual is basically for new construction. The MUTCD controls markings on existing roadways. Both favor liberal passing zones, “especially those routes with high volumes of truck or recreational vehicles” (Design Manual Section 2.01.2).
The MUTCD says it forcefully:
“On two-way, two-or three lane roadways where center line markings are installed, no-passing zones shall be established at vertical and horizontal curves where an engineering study indicates that passing must be prohibited because of inadequate sight distances or other special conditions.” (MUTCD Section 3B.02(03) (emphasis added)).
The presumption in favor of allowing passing is clearly reflected in that passage. And, that presumption is reflected in the language of documents provided by Tuolumne County officials in response to a Public Records Request.
They referred to the center striping for the entire 13 miles as a, “no passing zone.”
What the county did not provide was any engineering study to justify creating that “no passing zone.” In correspondence in 2010 with Tiechert Engineering, the project contractor, Tuolumne County officials cited only, “internal discussions,” as the basis for the striping. We made a Public Records Request for any engineering studies upon which the no passing striping was based. None were provided in its response.
Although fading in sections, that same “no passing zone” remains on the Tuolumne County section of LaGrange Road. If there is a problem…a danger… represented by the striping, it must be viewed from the perspective of the innocent driver, not the person making the pass.
Just “eyeballing” the Tuolumne County stretch of LaGrange Road, it appears there are several sections which would meet the minimum sight distance recommendations for center line markings for passing in both state manuals. There are also sections where pastureland beside the roadway is at roadway level and could accommodate another passing lane.
The pressure can build. Dr. Anderson may have become frustrated when he came upon the two cars ahead of him, which he may have caught up to after crossing into the Tuolumne County section. They were going substantially slower than the posted speed limit and, familiar with the roadway and its previous markings, he decided to pass where it was once considered safe to do so. He would have known there was nowhere on LaGrange Road, once into Tuolumne County, that passing would be legal.
This does not excuse what he did. It may, however, explain why he did it, and where he did it.
We have not focused on the collision itself. The facts of the crash were highly disputed at Dr. Anderson’s trial and that of his wife, who was accused of accessory crimes. There was even an eyewitness who said a vehicle other than Dr. Anderson’s caused the crash. Both were found guilty and their cases are on appeal.
The case was notorious in Tuolumne County. The investigating CHP officer first on the scene found Dr. Anderson at the scene tending to the injured, after he determined Trisha was deceased. The officer says she asked Dr. Anderson if he was involved or was just a witness. She says Dr. Anderson said he was there simply to help the injured. His wife talked to other CHP officers but did not say anything about any involvement in the collision. Both fully identified themselves to the officers.
So, it was originally thought to be a hit-run situation and was played as such in the Sonora newspaper, and on social media, with attendant and fully understandable sympathy for the families of those killed and injured and anger directed to the person responsible.
After viewing video from a fixed camera at a convenience store south of the crash scene, investigators figured out that the car which made the pass was a white Acura. The officers obtained DMV records of the make and model, and on the printout of ownership records spotted Dr. Anderson’s name.
Investigators interviewed him and he said he had passed at that location, at that time, but that his pass was completed without causing problems for oncoming traffic. After further investigation, Dr. Anderson and his wife were arrested. Dr. Anderson was charged with vehicular manslaughter and hit and run driving. Diane was charged with being an accessory to her husband’s crimes.
Their arrests prompted very negative social media posts, only made worse when Diane Anderson was quoted in the paper as describing some Sonora residents as “rednecks.” Social media exploded after this remark.
Conclusion: Diane Anderson just finished the in-custody portion of her 10-month jail sentence; Dr. Anderson is about halfway through his 5-year prison term and should be eligible for parole this summer; unofficial but well maintained memorials for Mr. Reinhardt, Trista and Tina still mark the site of the collision and the double yellow center line remains along the entire Tuolumne County stretch of LaGrange Road, as does the word “SAFE” spray painted on the roadway.