Davis: How story on high-speed car crashes came to be

 
 
Posted10/14/2017 2:00 PM
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  • Police say the black Camaro, right, was traveling 135 mph when it rear-ended another car, killing its 23-year-old driver in Wheaton.

    Police say the black Camaro, right, was traveling 135 mph when it rear-ended another car, killing its 23-year-old driver in Wheaton. COURTESY OF ABC 7

Several years ago, my wife's car was rear-ended by a driver who didn't stick around to admire his work.

She was fine, and the damage to the car was not extensive (but, then again, what body work is ever "cheap"?) She didn't get a license plate or the make and model of the car, but filed a police report, anyway. And then ... crickets.

A few days later, I called the police for a status update, figuring they'd be in hot pursuit of the perpetrator. Not exactly. The sergeant I talked to sounded tired, a bit frazzled, and he leveled with me: They were working a fatal hit-and-run and other stuff; my wife's accident with no injuries simply wasn't a priority, I concluded. It was difficult to get indignant that a fatality was a priority over a fender bender.

That experience came to mind when we pursued a follow-up to the Sept. 30 fatal crash in which the driver was charged with driving his Camaro 135 mph and rear-ending a Honda Accord, killing a 23-year-old woman from Elgin. Prosecutors said the Camaro driver "wanted to see how fast he could drive."

Discussions at our morning news meeting, I'd bet, mirror those that occur near the proverbial office water cooler. Someone remarks, "Boy, seems like there's been a bunch of those high-speed crashes lately."

Next thing you know, we have a bona fide assignment to pursue.

I enlisted staff writer Chris Placek to do some research to see if the theory was on the money. It wasn't too long before he came up with several cases this year of drivers traveling 100 mph or close to it and causing fatal crashes.

And while that anecdotal info is interesting water cooler fodder, and certainly online click bait, it's basically a list. As Chris and I realized, we needed more to make this a story. So, he called national traffic and safety groups to see what types of data were out there -- something that would support, or disprove, the theory about high-speed crashes being on the rise. Turns out, the most recent figures were from 2015, while our local anecdotes were all from this year, including the tragic crash in Des Plaines in which a driver hurtling down Northwest Highway at 135 mph took the lives of three family members headed for a soccer game at a nearby YMCA. The speeding driver was killed, too.

We put the story aside for a few days, but then, just before last weekend, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released updated figures for last year, showing that 10,111 people nationwide died in speeding-related crashes -- a 4 percent increase from 2015. That was part of an overall trend in which 37,461 died on U.S. roads last year, a 5.6 percent increase.

With our theory on the increasing prevalence of speeding confirmed, one element remained -- another part of our news meeting/water cooler conversation: Just what do you do when you see someone passing everyone in sight at a breakneck speed?

Unfortunately, there isn't a silver bullet on this one. As Placek noted in his story, the National Safety Council said drivers who feel in danger should pull over, take down the driver's license plate and report it to police. That doesn't mean you'll soon see a squad car in hot pursuit.

Most police departments long ago set policies directing officers to weigh the risks before engaging in high-speed chases. And, often, the decision is not to put more drivers at risk.

Alas, this story is one without a satisfying ending. As Bill Kushner, the Des Plaines police chief who oversaw the quadruple fatal crash in February, told Chacour Koop, who also worked the story: "It's sad to say there's really not a lot of actions police departments can take to mitigate those things. You can only hope and pray that they're not going to hurt anyone when they're speeding away."

jdavis@dailyherald.com

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