Jacob Griffiths, 36, from Urbandale, Iowa, and his son, Wyatt, 6, died at around 7:53 PM Wednesday night, December 21st, 2016, in West Des Moines, Iowa in a collision with a support pillar beneath the 50th Street overpass on I-235.
Griffith’s daughter survived the collision with life-threatening injuries, was taken to blank Children’s Hospital, and was most recently described as in critical condition.
The vehicle was a white large pickup truck that appears to be a mid-to-late 2000-era Ford F-150 quad cab.
The exact details of the collision are as yet unknown, but Griffith appears to have been heading eastbound on I-235 with his children in the back seats of the pickup truck. He then crashed into a concrete support pillar at a high rate of speed, although it is not yet clear whether or not he had been speeding. Both Griffith and his son died at the scene. Witnesses at the scene broke the rear windows of the crashed truck to extricate the two children from the rear seats, and Griffith’s daughter was transported to the hospital. Witnesses described the crash as severe.
“It was just surrounded by police and I saw a guy pulling, wiping blood off his hands and everything else” said Cole Ledbetter.
Ledbetter said he knew the instant he saw the crash that it was as bad as it looked.
“I told my girlfriend, ‘that one doesn’t look good’ and as soon as we saw the front end of the truck I turned to her and said ‘somebody didn’t make it in that’” he said.
On the surface, this appears to have been a tragic case of poor driving that claimed the life of a father and one of his children while severely injuring another. Investigators haven’t provided any information regarding why Griffith left the road and drove into the support pillar, but such cases are almost always due to driver error; there are very few mechanical issues in vehicles that lead to fatalities in comparison to human mistakes.
One of the most significant elements of the collision involved the poorly designed concrete support pillars of the concrete underpass. As visible in this image, there were no barriers around the support pillars capable of preventing a vehicle from driving directly into them. This reflects the dominant approach to road safety found today in the US, wherein individual drivers are responsible for their safety. While this sounds like a common-sense approach, it’s not best practices, and it’s not what the countries with the lowest death rates (those following Vision Zero policies) are doing. A simple barricade running parallel to the road and tapering around the concrete pillars could have either prevented vehicles from crashing directly into the barriers or at the very least ameliorated any potential collisions, saving the lives of father and child in this collision.
I was also unable to find much additional information regarding the speed of the vehicle upon impact or if and how the children were harnessed. There are certainly crash speeds that make collisions unsurvivable for all occupants in a given vehicle, but given the fact that the daughter did survive the collision, it was certainly survivable at some level. I did find what appeared to be a Graco black low back booster thrown from the vehicle (next to a child’s shoe) in an on-site image, suggesting at least one of the children was boostered. However, boosters aren’t appropriate restraints for children before the age of 8, and neither child was 8 years old. The image additionally shows severe intrusion in the front cabin and second row, significantly reducing the survival space for all occupants. I would tentatively hypothesize that the deceased child may have been sitting immediately behind his father. This video indicates the daughter was in a car seat (it looks like a Graco combination seat), which likely saved her life.
It’s possible that if the son had been in a harnessed seat, as best practice suggests for children under 8 who are no longer rear-facing, he might have survived the collision. However, it’s impossible to provide any answers without additional information, and that information isn’t forthcoming at the moment. The most pertinent factor in the survival of the children, of course, involved whatever led the father to crash to begin with. Why did he drive into the barrier? What happened in the pickup immediately before the collision? Or was everything normal everywhere but inside Griffith’s head?
Whatever the reason, additional information regarding the history of Griffith also raises questions.
According to court records, Griffith’s wife had filed for an order of protection against him this past August due to threats against her life, against himself, and against police officers. Records then indicate that in September, a new agreement was set in place wherein Griffith could no longer contact his wife but did have temporary custody of his son and daughter. Specifically, he was granted visitation rights on Wednesday evenings between 5 PM and 8 PM. The fatal collision occurred just before 8 PM on a Wednesday. It’s possible that he might have been driving back to the police department to return his children. Was he simply in a hurry to get back within the boundaries of his custody? The fact that his children appear to have been restrained suggests that he had planned on arriving alive.
While there is no way of knowing exactly what was going through Griffith’s mind in the moments before the crash, I have to wonder if his relationship with his wife might have affected his world view or the decisions he made when driving with his children. We may never know. What is certain, sadly, is that his wife has been left without her husband and one of her children, with the other between life and death. I can only wish her and her surviving child the best.
What to do
Tragedies like these leave us with more questions than answers, and more grief than solace. However, because we always look for ways to protect ourselves and our loved ones, no matter how little we can do in the end, there are at least a few things we can take away from this sad, sad day. Please pay attention when driving, whether with or without your children. Remember that you can cut your risk of death by auto in half simply by driving safely, which is a greater boost than that possible by buying the safest cars on the road.
Use the proper restraints for your children every single time you install them in a vehicle. That means rear-facing from birth through preschool years (ideally until 4!), before forward-facing them in harnessed convertible or combination seats (ideally until 8!). Once they outgrow their harnessed seats, it’s best to keep them restrained in high-back boosters until they’re physically and psychologically ready to use adult seat belt systems (which typically happens between 10 and 12). These steps take a bit of work to do and to keep up with, but they can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Above all, we need to continue to look toward new ways of thinking and design our infrastructure in ways that help reduce the risks present in road travel. We can’t control how people think when driving, but we can design roads to have fewer blindingly obvious deathtraps like unguarded concrete pillars mere feet away from 70 mph traffic.
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