The fatal crashes described on these pages are all different, but they have one thing in common: Someone ran a red light. The circumstances of a particular crash may point to a deeper cause, so it's tempting to seek a deeper solution. After all, we know that red means stop. We learned that long before we learned to drive. If people disobey red lights, or simply fail to see them, we assume there's a reason. It must be because they drank too much or they're fiddling with their cellphones or they're inexperienced or reckless drivers. All those things may be true, and many of the underlying causes can and should be addressed. But we can prevent many red light running crashes, regardless of the circumstances, by using cameras to enforce the law. The fact is that the threat of a ticket makes everyone drive more carefully. The data prove it.
— Adrian Lund, Institute president
Jean Good and Jay Good, 58
Maidencreek Township, Pennsylvania
Clockwise from left, Jean, Jay, Jared, and Jacy Good
Jacy Good on the day of the crash
Hours after Jacy Good's graduation from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., she and her parents packed the family's 1989 Oldsmobile station wagon, strapped a sofa to the roof, and headed home to Lititz, a tiny Lancaster County town.
At 21, Good felt on top of the world. She planned to spend a few weeks at home before going to New York, where a job with Habitat for Humanity awaited. Her mother, a middle school English teacher, and her father, a foundry mechanic, were both brimming with pride.
Nearly halfway into their 70-mile trip, a chain-reaction crash set off by a red light runner sent a tractor-trailer into the opposite lane and into their car. Jay Good, who was at the wheel, and Jean Good, who rode in back and wasn't using a safety belt, died at the scene. Jacy Good, who was in the front seat, was left with a traumatic brain injury, partially collapsed lungs, a lacerated liver, 2 damaged carotid arteries, a shattered pelvis, and other injuries.
Weeks later, after she regained consciousness, Good began to learn the details of the crash. The driver of the minivan that sailed through the red light, causing the tractor-trailer to veer into the Good's station wagon, was 18 years old, had 2 teenage passengers and, according to police, was using his cellphone when the crash occurred. He was cited for careless driving and running a red light and paid $662 in fines and other costs.
Good believes the cellphone was to blame in the May 18, 2008, tragedy. "There's no question in my mind that there would have been no accident if he had not been on his cellphone," she says.
Now 24, Good expects to wear an ankle brace for the rest of her life. She had surgery last summer to recover some function in her limp left arm. Meanwhile, she's become an outspoken campaigner against distracted driving, lobbying lawmakers, appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and addressing high school students. Her activism is in part a way to honor her mother and father's memory, Good says. "I know if the roles were switched, this is what my parents would be doing for me."
Billy Ray Spence, 64
Billy Ray Spence
"What're you boys doin?"
That's what Billy Ray Spence, better known as Billy Kool, would say when he walked into a room. And when he did, you knew the party was about to get started. Spence, a heavy equipment operator who moonlighted as a bartender, was a captivating storyteller, jokester, poker player, and briefly married bachelor who lived just down the street from his elderly mother in Lubbock, Texas. He was killed at age 64 while running an errand on the afternoon of Nov. 11, 2008.
His red 1996 Jaguar XJ6 was broadsided by a Ford Explorer whose driver ran a red light. The driver of the Explorer, Marcelo Perez Jr., 35, was charged with manslaughter. Perez, who tested negative for alcohol and drugs, was no stranger to that intersection: He had been in another crash there just weeks earlier, leading to a charge against him of failing to stop and render aid. Perez died of an unrelated condition before either case could be resolved.
Sandra Johnson says her big brother went off to the Air Force in the 1960s as Billy Spence, but returned as Billy Kool. His name for everyone — or, at least, everyone he liked — was "Ace." Billy Kool's ability to tell a story made him the life of the party. Johnson says he could captivate an audience of grown men with a card trick or a story about three little bears. Spence retired, but never stayed that way for long. "He would always say, 'I just want to be home with nothing on but the TV,'" Johnson recalls. "And then when he'd go back to work, he'd say, 'I felt like putting clothes on, so I went back to work.'"
Shane Kieser, 19
Las Vegas, Nevada
Shane Kieser loved wheels, and he loved adrenaline. When he wasn't racing at the BMX bicycle track, he was often doing stunts in the concrete bowl near his home in Las Vegas. His mother gave him his own insurance card in case she was at work the next time he landed on his face.
When Kieser got a motorcycle, his mother, Terri, wasn't thrilled but she took it in stride. Shane knew the risks and never rode without a helmet.
Early on the morning of Aug. 19, 2008, Kieser and his girlfriend headed to Walmart. They were night owls, says his mother, and "unfortunately, in Vegas everything is open at all hours of the day."
At 5:30 a.m., Kieser's 1994 Honda CBR slammed into a Toyota Corolla, killing him and injuring his girlfriend. The Corolla's driver wasn't hurt. Police say 3 witnesses saw the motorcycle go through a red light. Terri Kieser says that doesn't square with what she knows about her son.
"I was always the first to go, ‘What did Shane do?'" she says with a laugh, before turning serious. "But I want to say no. No. Maybe a yellow that he felt he couldn't safely stop at. But running a red with his girlfriend on the back? Never. Shane would never be crazy with somebody else's life."
An aspiring mechanic, Shane was known for his goofy sense of humor. "Birthday parties — the candles were usually up his nose like a walrus," his mother says.
Every year on his birthday, Terri Kieser invites Shane's friends to a nearby mountain where he loved to ride his bike. She brings along homemade waffles — his favorite.
Marcus May-Cook, 3
Mindy Cook still can hear her little boy saying, "Mommy, I want you," the way he used to, his arms raised over his head so that she would scoop him up.
Marcus May-Cook was just 3 when he died on Aug. 10, 2008. Two days before, a 17-year-old unlicensed driver broadsided the car Marcus was riding in near his home in Lansing. Police determined that the teenage driver, Brianca Alexander, had gone through a red light. Marcus was asleep when it happened and never woke up.
"I see no end to this grief," Cook wrote in a letter she read at Alexander's sentencing hearing last September, more than 2 years after Marcus' death.
Alexander, who pleaded guilty to driving without a valid license, causing death, was sentenced to 2½ to 15 years in prison. Her mother received a year in jail with work release for allowing her daughter, who never had so much as a learner's permit, to take the car.
Marcus was an exuberant little boy who was convinced he would grow up to be Spider-Man. He wore a Spider-Man costume on Halloween — and kept wearing it long after the candy was gone. He even tried to climb the walls like the superhero, knocking over a shelf once in the process.
Cook knows that Marcus would have been excited to start kindergarten this past fall. He often imagined heading to school just like big sister Makyla. When their mother packed Makyla's lunch, Marcus insisted on one to carry to his grandmother's house, where he stayed while his mom was at work.
On the Friday of the crash, Marcus and his sister were riding along as their aunt drove their grandmother to her part-time job. Their cousin was in the back seat with them. Cook was at work when she got the call shortly before 5 p.m. When she saw Marcus at the hospital, he didn't look injured, but his brain had been severely damaged. By Sunday, tests confirmed that nothing could save him.
Cook's mother, who was riding in front, had a fractured skull and other injuries. She is no longer able to work. Makyla, who was 6, was injured but recovered. She and her cousin were riding in boosters, while Marcus was buckled in a child restraint.
Cook now has another son and says 1-year-old Marrion has begun to recognize his brother in photographs.
"Marcus," says Cook, "is always talked about."
Deborah Parsons-Mason, 47
San Jose, California
Deborah Parsons-Mason, second from right
Deborah Parsons-Mason worried about walking in her San Jose neighborhood, especially on weekend nights when the nearby bars were full. Drunk driving was a problem in the area, and the family had seen cars totaled just outside their window. The 47-year-old mother warned her 4 kids to use extra caution crossing the street.
But on a Friday 6 days before Christmas 2008, Parsons-Mason would have had her mind on other things. She had just been out shopping, and her mother was flying in the next day. That night, Parsons-Mason walked to the corner store with her 14-year-old son, Jimmy, to buy some candy bars. On the way home, a pickup truck blew through a red light, striking Parsons-Mason in the crosswalk. As her horrified son watched, she was thrown in the air, landing in her next-door neighbor's driveway. Her husband and her other son heard the crash from inside the house and ran outside to see what had happened.
The driver, Gilberto Vasquez Reyes, 63, had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.21 percent, more than 2½ times the legal limit. He pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter but died 5 days before sentencing. He was facing 4 to 6 years in prison.
Parsons-Mason worked as a cashier at Lucky supermarket and was heavily involved in her children's schooling, says her sister Kimberly Sabino. During their own childhood in southern California, Debi, the oldest of 3 girls, was like a second mother, says Sabino, who was the youngest and 5 years her junior.
Two years on, the family's grief is still raw. Jimmy constantly replays that night in his head, wishing he had seen the truck coming and pushed his mother out of harm's way, says Parsons-Mason's mother, Diane Courtney.
Sabino says it's hard for her to accept that Reyes, who had several prior convictions for driving under the influence, didn't face a more serious charge than manslaughter. "She wasn't just hit. She was slammed into," Sabino says.
"The way my sister was killed was murder."
Amber Cornett, 16
Bethel Township, Ohio
On Nov. 22, 2008, Amber Cornett dutifully called her parents to tell them she was on her way home after spending the night at a friend's house and going out for breakfast. Cornett was belted in the front seat when the 2003 Chevrolet Cavalier her friend was driving was broadsided by a pickup truck at an intersection in rural Bethel Township in Clark County, Ohio. She was killed just 6 days before her 17th birthday. Cornett's friend told police she thought she had a green light. The driver and the passenger of the other vehicle insisted their light was green. A third girl who was in the Cavalier's back seat and was injured in the crash couldn't recall approaching the intersection. Police were unable to determine fault and didn't file charges.
"All we really got was no answers," says Mack Cornett, Amber's father. The daughter he lost was "every parent's dream," Cornett says. She was a good student and made friends easily. "I know she was looking forward to getting the chance to get out on her own."
On tribute pages on the web, friends remember Amber's effervescent personality. They lament that she'll never meet their new boyfriends and confide that they can't bear to delete her number from their cellphones.
Mack Cornett has his own way of remembering: The 46-year-old machinist manager keeps in his Bible a picture of Amber with a big smile, taken the summer before she died. Cornett says he's disappointed that neither driver has reached out to say they're sorry. He would be inclined to forgive.
"People run lights. I don't think the majority of people who run them mean to run them. They have distractions," he says.
"How many times have you done something and you got away with it? You look down, you look at your watch, you turn the knob on the stereo, you laugh at a joke — you miss the light."