dr. Mark Morocco was on duty in the emergency room at UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Medical Center when it happened. He told me that the staff had been warned and were beginning to prepare for incoming patients – prepared for the worst.
In Los Angeles, one collision is even more terrifying than the last, it seems. Vehicles are being dismembered, debris is going up into the air, car parts and people are being burned in fireballs.
This time, on Thursday afternoon, it happened at the intersection of Slauson and La Brea avenues in Windsor Hills. Police say the driver of a Mercedes, traveling at speeds between 80 and 100 mph, blew through a red light. The smoldering wreckage looked like something you’d expect after an aerial bombardment.
“The important thing is that the faster you go, the more all bets are off,” Morocco said. “There is a speed limit for a reason, and the faster you go, the more things happen that are all bad.”
It turned out that several patients came to the emergency room, but only one was seriously injured.
The rest had died on the spot.
Morocco, who later saw images of the wreckage, said it is like so many other people where people are gone before they know what hit them.
“People have broken their necks, they burn to death and suffer irreparable injuries. The responsibility for care falls into the lap of firefighters and paramedics… and even those guys, with all their equipment and training, can do nothing,” Morocco said.
“I see 80-mph drivers between my home and UCLA every day,” Morocco said. “And that’s on surface streets, 2.3 miles.”
And every night from his home in West LA there is a symphony of speed and horsepower.
“All night we hear blown racing exhausts up and down Olympic and Pico,” said Morocco. “All night every night.”
It’s frighteningly common in Los Angeles, and getting behind the wheel, going for a walk or a bike ride is a game of roulette.
Morocco once ran onto its street after a neighbor was hit by a car. Knowing it looked bad, he told his wife, Lisa Waltz, to run back home and get a sharp kitchen knife so he could perform surgery if necessary before the ambulance arrived. The neighbor didn’t make it.
In February 2021, Waltz and Morocco heard the thunder of a collision nearby. Waltz ran to Olympic, where a teenager in a speeding Lamborghini had driven into a car driven by Monique Munoz, 32, a UCLA office assistant who wanted to become a lawyer. Waltz ran back to get Morocco and told him it was very bad.
“It looked like a war zone,” said Morocco, who came to Munoz’s aid. She had been in a car that no longer looked like a car. “I held her head in my hands as she died. She died at the top of my street because someone was driving over a hundred miles an hour.’
A month after that senseless tragedy, I attended a memorial service to mark the one-year anniversary of another victim of traffic violence. Sixty-eight-year-old psychologist Larry Brooks had gone for an afternoon walk in his Arts District and hadn’t come home.
His wife of 34, Anna Marie Piersimoni, heard sirens and then there was a knock on her door. The police told her that her husband was gone. A 23-year-old driver in a speeding McLaren sports car had lost control and killed Brooks on the spot.
Piersimoni told me that ‘vehicle guns run wild’ killed her husband, who was loved by many and who had worked with children in disadvantaged communities. The driver who hit him was sentenced to six months in prison but was released after less than three months, Piersimoni said. Her civil lawsuits against the driver and the city are pending, the latter claiming necessary road safety improvements had not been made despite complaints from residents.
Isaac Cardona, Munoz’s stepfather, told me that the street where she died “is not a racetrack. It’s a residential street, with a speed limit.”
Speed limits mean nothing, and enforcement is all too rare. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti introduced Vision Zero in 2015, with the goal of ending road deaths by 2025. But in 2021, 21% more people died than in 2020, with nearly 300 fatalities. And critics say efforts to create safer streets through engineering, enforcement, education, evaluation and community involvement have been disappointing.
“We know how to make roads safer. It’s not rocket science. It’s actually very simple. But we don’t have enough political leaders standing up,” said Damian Kevitt, who lost his right leg below the knee in 2013 when he was hit on a bicycle near the zoo in Griffith Park.
Kevitt, who founded the nonprofit Streets Are for Everyone after his near-death experience, has warned me not to view such incidents as accidents. Selfish, negligent and dangerous driving is a choice, he says. Just like drunk driving, which is all too common. And the biggest factor in deadly collisions, he said, is speed.
“We’re so concerned about gun regulation,” Kevitt said, and of course we should be. “But it’s perfectly acceptable for people to drive recklessly with something as deadly as a gun, and commit the equivalent of a mass shooting by driving their vehicle across an intersection.”
It’s not acceptable, but we haven’t done enough about it. Kevitt said the redesign of streets with roundabouts, speed bumps and a host of other aids would slow vehicles and protect cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. City officials have said many improvements have been made and more work remains to be done.
When I last wrote about Kevitt, he was pushing for legislation calling for speed enforcement cameras near schools. The bill died, as did another calling for speed enforcement in high-collision areas.
Opposition to such efforts comes from police unions who may be concerned about cameras doing their job, from those who question its admissibility in court, and from those who argue against the reliability of surveillance technology or the possibility of citations being sent. to vehicle owners who are not behind the wheel.
That’s all been addressed in other cities, Kevitt says, and the number of collisions has dropped in those places. Not only did he say he hasn’t given up on the fight, but he is storming back, with a growing army of supporters.
“Right now we have a huge influx of traffic violence victims asking for help, and we are rushing to reach out to victims in Windsor Hills to provide assistance. We have policy and legislative issues that we are trying to reformulate… and we will continue to do so,” Kevitt said. “Honestly, we’re going to take off the gloves and start calling out names. We’ve been nice at it, but enough is enough.”
Morocco, by the way, used to be an actor and screenwriter. In 1988, he and Waltz were seriously injured in a two-car collision on icy streets in Pennsylvania. If their car or the other had gone 10 or 20 mph faster, he said, they might have been dead. Morocco, inspired by the trauma surgeon and emergency room physician who helped save his life, changed careers. I met him when he was studying medicine in Pennsylvania.
Morocco said that at the height of the pandemic, when the streets were less congested, he saw many patients injured in high-speed collisions. The return of heavy traffic has not stopped the carnage and Morocco suspects that something has changed in the psyche of many people.
In the wake of virus denial, resistance to vaccines and a general sense of rebellion against the rule of law, a new form of selfishness and recklessness seems to be emerging, Morocco said, all made more dangerous by LA’s preponderance of large , fast, dangerous vehicles.
It’s like “everyone drives like Mario Andretti wherever you go,” said Morocco, with brutal road racing and street takeovers. It’s like we’ve gone backwards, and the attitude seems to be, ‘I have to live in the moment and take what’s mine. Like the behavior of cavemen.”
Seat belts, airbags and advances in life-saving ER techniques have survived many collisions, Morocco said. But those things are no match for tons of metal that rage through roads and boulevards like meteors.
“Time to take those people’s cars away, one and done, you are now walking,” said Morocco. “Cruel and unusual punishment? Cruel and unusual is burning to death in your minivan, or having your children run over on a zebra crossing.”