Paul Walker: A Cautionary Tale

Posted on December 9, 2013

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He starred in a series of movies about illegal street racing, until a high-speed crash killed him.

Until his death in a fiery car crash, I had no idea who Paul Walker was.  It quickly became clear that he was the star of the movie franchise The Fast and the Furious.   Walker was not driving the car, and the car was reportedly not engaged in a street race at the time, but police say speed was a factor.  One look at the wreckage, and any layman would say speed was the biggest factor.

I did not recognize Walker because I have little interest in movies about street-racing thugs and idiots.  We have enough of that around here in real life, resulting in deaths and horrific injuries.  I was a little shocked to read that a seventh The Fast and the Furious movie is currently in production.  Seven!  The first came out in 2001. I don’t know what the movies depict about street racing, nor how much influence the movies might have had (or not) on hotheaded adrenalin addicts, but they are not doing anyone any favors.

In  2008, as CBS News reports, there was a spectacularly grisly street-racing disaster right here in the DC Metro area, on Indian Head Highway in Accokeek, Maryland.  In real life, street racers gather illegally at odd hours on public highways.  They attract crowds of onlookers, including children.  Children!  What fool would bring his child to one of these things?

The Accokeek accident did not directly involve the racers; no, the spectators were standing in the roadway watching the racers speed away when an unsuspecting driver plowed into them in the dark at an estimated 50 MPH.  The outcome was completely predictable: eight dead, five more injured.

Somehow, the participants (yes, the spectators are participating) are in denial about just what they are doing.  Here’s the brother of a dead victim:  “He liked going to the race track, watching races.  It’s going to take a toll on my family for a long time.”  Slight problem:  Indian Head Highway is a public highway, not a race track.  Here’s the daughter of another dead victim:  “There were just bodies everywhere; it was horrible… I’m sorry this had to happen — for somebody to be driving a car so fast and not think to hit the brakes.”  Whaaaattt?  Wasn’t this lady just watching a couple of cars illegally screaming away at speeds likely topping 100 MPH?  And now she wants to blame someone legally driving under the speed limit on a dark 55 MPH highway!  Sorry to state the obvious, but the spectators were standing in the middle of a high-speed traffic lane in the dark.  When you seek your thrills by courting death, sometimes you win her hand.

But no one is willing to call out a grieving family member about just how ill-considered the activity was to begin with.  Observers say things like, “It’s a tragedy,” but there is little judgment about just how that tragedy came to pass.  At most, they might say, “This is a situation that could have been avoided, and it’s a very tragic situation.”  The strongest judgment I noted in the press:  “That is a main thoroughfare. For people to be standing in the road like that, I don’t really know what to say.”

When horrible accidents occur, we speak of the tragedy of it all, the suddenness, the shock, as if we are shaken to our very core by the thought that death can reach out to any of us, any time.  That we’ll never see it coming; we have no power of foresight; and it certainly is never our fault.  The Sword of Damocles hangs over all of us, and the fragile hair that suspends it could go at any time.  Our society shies away from blaming people for their own accidental deaths.  Maybe it’s a “there but for the grace of God” thing.  Maybe we are conditioned “not to speak ill of the dead.”  Maybe we feel like karma will bite us in the butt if we do speak ill of the dead.

Maybe it’s time to start.  There is such a thing as getting yourself killed, and worse, there is such a thing as taking others with you.  That’s the risk with reckless driving in general and illegal street racing in particular.  We don’t need another movie glorifying reckless, deadly, illegal behavior; we need an honest conversation about how the star of those movies ended up horribly dead.

Paul Walker got into a car with his friend, who then collided with immovable objects off the road at a high rate of speed.  The car was obliterated and burned, and so were the two men inside.   We all are just as fragile as those two men, and as easily obliterated.  But we don’t have to be as reckless in our choices.

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