Westfield woman charged with vehicular homicide in South Hadley pedestrian death

  • The area of 29 College St., South Hadley. GOOGLE MAPS—

  • Michihiro Yoshida poses with two of his paintings, titled “Cogito Ergo Sum IV” (left) and “Avarice.”  Submitted photo

  • Paul Kandel, an employee at Mount Holyoke walks across the cross walk in South Hadley. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The cross walk on College Street in South Hadley. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul Kandel, an employee at Mount Holyoke College, walks across the crosswalk Thursday in South Hadley where Michihiro Yoshida was struck and killed by a motorist Aug. 29. Erin O’Connor, 38, of Westfield has been charged with motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation in connection with Yoshida’s death. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/29/2018 11:52:05 AM

BELCHERTOWN — A Westfield woman has been charged in the August death of an 88-year-old South Hadley man whom she struck in a crosswalk while allegedly distracted by a cell phone while driving.

Erin M. O’Connor, 38, was arraigned in Eastern Hampshire District Court this week on charges of motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation, operating a motor vehicle while sending or reading an electronic message and a crosswalk violation for her role in the death of Michihiro Yoshida, according to the Northwestern district attorney’s office.

O’Connor was released on her personal recognizance and is due back in court Jan. 18 for a pre-trial hearing.

Yoshida was struck while crossing College Street in South Hadley on Aug. 29 at around 10:15 a.m. Yoshida was in a crosswalk in the area of the Village Commons near Mount Holyoke College.

According to a police report, O’Connor told police that she was not texting or looking at her phone when the accident occurred. She told officers she had her phone on her lap at the time of the crash with her GPS turned on, which gives audio directions.

A witness who spoke with police said he was at a red light turning onto Route 116 when O’Connor’s car passed his, and he alleges that O’Connor was “distracted and looking down,” according to a police report. The witness, who the report states was behind O’Connor’s vehicle, said that he saw the crosswalk’s yellow lights flashing, and that he did not see O’Connor’s brake lights come on before Yoshida was struck in the middle of the crosswalk.

According to the report, PVTA video footage shows Yoshida take eight to nine steps into the crosswalk with the warning lights flashing before being struck by O’Connor’s car, which allegedly did not slow or swerve.

Based on findings from a joint investigation by the South Hadley Police Department, the Massachusetts State Police Detectives Unit attached to the Northwestern district attorney’s office, and the Massachusetts State Police Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Section, O’Connor is alleged to have failed to slow or stop her vehicle as Yoshida crossed in a crosswalk, Mary Carey, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said. O’Connor is also alleged to have been using her cellphone at the time of the crash.

The report also claims probable cause that O’Connor drove distracted and in a negligent manner, resulting in Yoshida’s death.

Safety concerns

Several pedestrians interviewed on Thursday said that the crosswalk’s location, paired with distracted drivers, can make it a dangerous site, noting that drivers do not always stop for the flashing yellow lights designed to alert them of pedestrians crossing the road.

“You have these yellow flashing lights, but sometimes cars will speed right through,” said Spencer Smith, a physics professor at Mount Holyoke College, where Yoshida was well-known among the campus community.

Paul Kandel, a project manager in the technology division at the college, echoed this sentiment: “People really do fly though here,” he said of the crosswalk, adding that the flashing yellow lights can sometimes create a false sense of security among pedestrians.

The crosswalk’s location between Mount Holyoke College and The Village Commons makes it a particularly pedestrian-heavy area, Kandel said.

“This happens to be such a populated area… You think they would do a little bit more,” Kandel added, suggesting that a raised crosswalk could help.

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan said that he has met with Mount Holyoke College, the state Department of Transportation and other groups to come up with ideas about making the crosswalks safer, considering possibilities such as increased camera presence in the area, better lighting at night and reducing the speed limit.

But for this specific accident, Sullivan said that he believes driver negligence played a large role in the accident, and that “little could have been done from a sign standpoint or signalization or things of that nature.”

Sullivan said that the town and Mount Holyoke College are also making efforts to encourage all pedestrians to be vigilant about their surroundings before crossing, adding, “while (all pedestrian deaths) are each tragedies in their own right, it’s important for us all to be part of making it safer.”

Staff writer Scott Merzbach contributed to this report.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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