When Patricia Wakham read about the accident that killed actor Paul Walker this past weekend, it brought back a haunting memory of her son’s untimely death. On a summer afternoon in 1998, Wakham’s son, Nick McLaughlin, 20, was coming home from the beach in San Diego with his buddies when the drivers of both cars decided to race.
They drove at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour across San Diego, but when the driver in the car in which Nick was riding tried to pass the other car, he lost control and he and Nick were killed instantly.
“When I heard about Paul, it brought it all back to me instantly and made cry,” said Wakham. “It appears to be yet another totally senseless death. My heart goes out to his parents and everyone who loved him.”
Walker, the co-star of all but one of the hugely popular Fast & Furious street racing films, died Saturday in a car crash north of Los Angeles. CNN and other sources initially reported that police were investigating the possibility that Walker, 40, and the driver of the car, Roger Rodas, 38 – both of whom raced cars off-screen – were engaged in a high-speed illegal street race with another car when they died. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department also released a statement on Sunday afternoon claiming that “speed was a factor” in the solo vehicle collision. A law enforcement official familiar with the investigation told NBC News on Monday that the Porsche Carerra GT was not part of a street race but that it was traveling at approximately 40 to 45 mph when it came to a bend in the road where the speed limit drops to about 15 mph.
Whether Walker’s car was racing or just going too fast, police hope this tragic accident will shine a light on an activity that, although underpublicized, has become increasingly prevalent since the first Fast & Furious film came out in 2001. Indeed, speed racing, which can take place on long stretches of vacant roads, mountain passes or even populated areas, has been a growing concern to local police departments across the U.S. Among recent incidents:
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* In April, police and witnesses said two speeding BMWs in San Jose that were apparently street racing lost control and one of them smashed deep into a private home, leaving a 40-year-old mother critically injured and her small daughter buried in rubble.
* In May, one woman was killed and six people were injured in the aftermath of a street race in the South Gate neighborhood of Los Angeles, according to the California Highway Patrol.
* In September, one person was killed and three were hospitalized after a three-way crash in Allapattah, Fla., that witnesses said was caused by street racing.
Sgt. Chris Hinkson, with the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland, has seen more than his share of street racing crashes. He said the worst came in February 2008, when eight pedestrians were killed and 20 more were injured by two vehicles in an illegal, organized street race with a large group of spectators.
“I’ve spent too much time talking to families who’ve lost a loved one in a street race,” said Hinkson. “It is a huge problem with our young people. They think nothing will happen, they feel immortal, invincible. But they’re not.”
Hinkson said the Fast & Furious movies “really glamorize street racing. These films have a very young and very impressionable audience who just don’t think about the devastation, the lives lost, the mothers, wives and children who no longer have a husband, an older brother or father.”
In the Maryland crash, a large group of people who knew the dead and the wounded started a “Take It to the Track” public awareness campaign. “The message is that racers should take their cars to a controlled environment,” Hinkson said. “We have several tracks where amateurs can take their cars. I don’t know how big an influence this has had, but thankfully we’ve not had an incident as bad as the 2008 crash.”
Lydia DeNecochea, executive director of RaceLegal.com, a San Diego organization that for 15 years has given young car enthusiasts a place to race their cars in a safe, controlled, legal environment, says Walker was “a very talented and decent man” and his death is “very sad, but hopefully we can all learn from this. The movies he starred in glamorize street racing and driving very fast, to the point where even the actors seem to think they are invincible. If even Paul Walker doesn’t understand that driving at excessive speeds on city streets is deadly and that these movies are pretend, how can we expect a 16-year-old with a new Camaro to believe any different?”
Walker and the driver, Rodas, both raced cars for real. Walker competed in the "Redline Time Attack" racing series and described himself on his Twitter page as an "adrenaline junkie." His death puts a new spotlight on these wildly popular movies and their allegedly harmful influence on young drivers.
The “Fast & Furious” franchise, which reportedly may end with Walker’s death, has earned Universal Studios more than $2.4 billion in worldwide ticket sales over the past decade. But the movies have always been accompanied by controversy. In 2002, Newsweek reported on allegations that the very first film in the series led to an increase in deaths.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that in the year following the release of the first film, street-racing fatalities skyrocketed. At least 135 people died in accidents from possible races, according to HHTSA -- almost twice as many as the year before.
Ron Capps, one of the nation's best-known and most successful Funny Car drag racers, reaches speeds of more than 300 mph when he races. But he always follows the rules of the road. He tells International Business Times, "From what I understand, Paul took driving pretty seriously. He raced legally.” Capps said he was surprised when he heard speculation that Walker and Rodas may have been street racing at the time of the accident.
Still, Capps says he and many of his professional colleagues who devote their lives to legal drag racing say the Fast & Furious films are “irresponsible” and that the filmmakers don’t do enough to dissuade young drivers from copycatting what they see in the movies.
"These movies are entertaining, but they send the wrong message," he said. "Anyone in the racing business just laughs at those movies. At the same time, we also frown on what the filmmakers are doing, because as professional drivers we preach to kids not to race your cars on the street. Bring it to a drag strip. Kids watch these movies and play the video games and are absolutely influenced by it. We all have to remind them it's not a video game, it's not a movie. Young people do not fully understand or respect the incredible power of these machines."
Universal Pictures, the studio behind the Fast & Furious films, has been deflecting criticism since the first movie was released. The studio said in a statement in 2003 that any attempt to link accidents to the second film in the series is unjustifiable and would "confuse cause and effect." The studio made similar statements before and after.
When asked what Universal has done to support safe driving and discourage illegal street racing, Kori Bernards, a spokesperson for Universal Pictures, declined to comment.
The studio has never really addressed the influence these films may have on young drivers beyond publishing obligatory warnings on websites and posting nanosecond disclaimer blurbs in some of the movies telling viewers they should not try this at home. But the movies themselves haven’t changed much. They still make street racing look cool and fun and rarely depict the sometimes very deadly repercussions.
Walker’s death is undeniably tragic. The handsome, charismatic actor leaves behind a daughter, Meadow, 15, and a longtime girlfriend, Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell, 23. His and Rodas’ tragic deaths could focus attention on the mortal peril inherent in excessive speeds on the street, and perhaps influence how street racing is depicted by Hollywood.
Members of law enforcement insist that Walker’s death could ultimately save lives. Richard Ashton, a spokesman for the Highway Safety Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, with more than 20,000 members, says he hopes “something positive” can come of this tragedy and that these films in the future change their message. “These movies unfortunately do encourage young people to go out and race their cars on the streets,” Ashton said. “I would like to see that change.”
Walker’s family released the following statement hours after his death:
“It is with a truly heavy heart that we must confirm that Paul Walker passed away today in a tragic car accident while attending a charity event for his organization Reach Out Worldwide. He was a passenger in a friend’s car, in which both lost their lives. We appreciate your patience as we too are stunned and saddened beyond belief by this news. Thank you for keeping his family and friends in your prayers during this very difficult time. We will do our best to keep you apprised on where to send condolences. -- #TeamPW”
Actor Vin Diesel, Walker’s co-star in the Fast & Furious films, is reportedly inconsolable. He released this Tweet soon after hearing of his friend’s death:
“Brother I will miss you very much. I am absolutely speechless. Heaven has gained a new Angel. RIP.”
In all the poignant tributes to Walker by friends, family and co-stars, no one is acknowledging the elephant in the room that may have led to the popular actor’s death.
Hinkson, who did not know Walker but has dealt with similar tragedies numerous times, hopes his death will lead to more discussion about street racing. “His movies make a lot of money, and in Hollywood it’s all about money, let’s face it,” he said. “They should air some sort of PSA [public service announcement] before or after the next movie, if there is one, about the very real dangers of street racing, not only to the drivers but to innocent bystanders.”
Parents also need to get involved with young drivers, Hinkson said. “My daughter is 16. We all have a job to do. We need to let our kids know that movies are just movies. Actually getting behind the wheel can be dangerous. And street racing can be deadly.”
Denecochea of RaceLegal said that someone in the film industry “has to be big enough to stand up and say, ‘We can’t cure the problem of street racing, but we can help it.’ Why doesn’t one of these movie studios stand up and say they will support our legal racing program or someone else’s legal racing program? These movies have made billions. How much money has Universal spent telling people to take it off the street?”
Wakham said her heart goes out to Walker's parents. "They're about to begin a journey full of despair, anger and memories," she said. "At times they will wonder, 'What good is a memory when you want your son?' I think of my son and the driver, who was his best friend: They just got caught up in the moment. It’s youth.”
Peggy Martinez, whose daughter, Rebeca Martinez, 17, died when she was a passenger in a car that was involved in a street race in 2002, said she still likes the Fast & Furious movies.
“It would break my heart if we learned that Paul [Walker] really was street racing,” she said. “But even if he wasn’t, he was evidently going too fast; he was doing something wrong. He should not be going that fast on a city street. He and his friend could have killed innocent people on that street. They knew better. Paul did a lot of good things in his life. He was at a charity function the day he died. I think he could have done more to discourage young people from street racing. My daughter died because of street racing. But I do think Paul was a good person. It’s just sad all the way around.”