Robin Abcarian
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Can tragedies like the SXSW crash ever be prevented?

Highway and Road DisastersCrime, Law and JusticeHomicideCrimeHealthLaws and LegislationDisasters and Accidents

It can happen anywhere. A driver plows into pedestrians on a crowded street. Bodies fly. People die. In the shocked aftermath, we ask why and wonder: Could we have done anything to prevent it?

At first, these random tragedies always seem unpredictable and unpreventable. But on closer inspection, they never happen out of the blue. There is always a history for the driver, always something that, in retrospect, explains the inexplicable: untreated mental illness, or cognitive impairment due to age, drug or alcohol abuse.

It’s too soon to know whether anything might have been done to prevent the devastation at the SXSW festival in Austin. At 12:30 a.m. Thursday, a driver who had been pulled over by police at a sobriety checkpoint sped away, going the wrong way down a one-way street. He rammed past a barricade and into a crowd waiting outside a nightclub for a show to start. Two people died, 23 were injured.

Late Thursday, Austin police announced they had arrested a 21-year–old Texas man, Rashad Charjuan Owens.

Some of the worst car assaults in recent memory have involved drivers who gave signs well ahead of the catastrophes they inflicted that they should not have been behind the wheel. Here are four of Southern California's most disturbing crashes involving cars and pedestrians. Do you think they could have been prevented?

1. Shortly before 9 p.m. on July 7, 1984, when the city of Los Angeles was in a state of excited anticipation for the summer Olympics, 21-year-old Daniel Lee Young of Inglewood drove his red Buick Regal up onto a crowded Westwood Village sidewalk. He drove along for almost a full block between Weyburn and Broxton avenues, killing 15-year-old Eileen Deutsch of New York City, and injuring 48 others. According to a story in The Times, Young told police that “Congress had passed a law requiring him to live in abject poverty and to write hit movies and songs for artists such as Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, for which Young would receive neither money nor credit.”

A year earlier, Young had tried to commit suicide by dousing himself with gasoline. He was committed to an involuntary hold for 72 hours, but refused to stay in order to continue his treatment. His family blamed a faulty mental health system. “All this could have been avoided if he had been admitted to a state hospital years ago,” his brother told The Times.

Young was sentenced to 106 years in prison.

Westwood Village, which never fully recovered from that trauma, was soon overtaken as a youth hangout by the Century City Marketplace and a revitalized Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

2. On Feb. 23, 2001, on Isla Vista’s Sabado Tarde Road, UC Santa Barbara freshman David Attias, who had a lifelong history of mental health problems, drove his new Saab into a group of pedestrians. Four people died instantly: Ruth Levy, Nick Bourdakis and Christopher Divis, all 20-year-old students, plus 27-year-old Ellie Israel. Ruth Levy’s older brother, Albert Levy, was critically injured and is permanently disabled.

Attias, the son of television director David Attias, emerged from his car yelling, “I am the angel of death!”

The case raised questions about parents' culpability. Attias’ parents knew he was sick, but testified they did not realize how serious his problems were. Despite two previous car accidents, his father gave him a new car. Despite wanting to stay home and attend Santa Monica College, his parents urged him to move away.

The case also raised questions – which have come up again and again, particularly in mass shooting cases – of the limits of mental health treatment for young adults.

Just before the rampage, according to court testimony, Attias’s dorm mates and other students noticed his deteriorating mental health. As The Times reported, he “drifted into delusion, believing he was a prophet and that the rap lyrics he listened to contained messages from God.” None of the students raised alarms to authorities or his parents.

In 2002, Attias was convicted of four counts of second-degree murder, but two weeks later, in a second phase, the jury determined that he was legally insane at the time of the crimes. He was committed to Patton State Hospital, a locked psychiatric facility in San Bernardino, for a term of up to 60 years.

Santa Barbara’s Independent reported that in 2011, his psychiatrists re-diagnosed him and now believe that Attias was in the grips of a “drug-induced psychosis” at the time of the crash, caused by Ecstasy and the animal tranquilizer Ketamine.

Ten years later, in 2012, the same judge who sentenced Attias, said he no longer posed a danger to society, and allowed him to be released to a highly structured outpatient program in Ventura County. “Should he relapse, refuse to take his meds, act out, or not comply in any way,” the Independent reported, “he could be sent back to Patton.”

3. On July 16, 2003, 86-year-old George Weller claimed he mistook the accelerator pedal of his 1992 Buick LeSabre for the brake pedal and crashed through a barricade at the Santa Monica farmers market.

As he barreled along Arizona Avenue, accelerating, he killed 10 people and wounded 60. One family lost a grandmother and a 7-month-old baby. Prosecutors said he’d had several minor accidents in the decade before the crash, and moments before he caused the farmer’s market carnage, he’d lightly rear ended a car. Some witnesses said they thought he was trying to flee the fender bender.

A jury struggled with whether the crash was an accident or a crime. In the end, jurors found Weller guilty of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. But by then, he was 91, and confined to a wheelchair. He died at 94 in December 2010. Santa Monica has paid at least $21 million in claims to victims.

A year after the crash, my colleague Martha Groves reported, federal safety official found the city’s safety plan and physical barriers to traffic were inadequate. Today, the street is blocked on either end by nets and cables designed to stop cars, even ones traveling at high speeds, without serious injury to drivers.

Should Weller have been driving in the first place? Probably not. But how do you stop an older driver who is legally behind the wheel?

4. On Aug. 3, 2013, 38-year-old Nathan Louis Campbell drove his 2008 Dodge Avenger onto the crowded Venice boardwalk, killing 32-year-old Alice Gruppioni, an Italian newlywed who was strolling with her husband. Campbell injured 17 others.

He told police that after the crash, which he fled on foot, he bought and downed a pint of vodka – which he claimed accounted for his 0.16% blood alcohol level five hours after the crash.

On the back seat of his car, police said, they found a certificate of completion for a sobriety program. Two months before he killed Gruppioni, police said, Campbell was kicked out of a recovery house for violating the program’s substance abuse policy.

Campbell has pleaded not guilty to murder, plus 17 counts of assault with a deadly weapon, including three with great bodily injury, and 10 counts of hit and run.

While Venice grapples with precautions such as adding surveillance cameras and putting up new barriers that could make the boardwalk safe from out-of-control cars, it’s worth remembering that Campbell got onto the boardwalk by driving up onto the sidewalk and around the metal poles, or bollards, that were installed on the western end of Dudley Avenue specifically to keep cars off the boardwalk.

There are several parking lots that lie west of the Boardwalk, which means it will never be possible to keep traffic completely away from this vibrant and popular tourist destination.

Reach me at @robinabcarian on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM ROBIN ABCARIAN

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