Gridlock Guy: Fear and loathing in Atlanta traffic and the link to Bubba Wallace’s NASCAR suspension

Two people were killed Thursday when a driver fleeing a Midtown traffic stop ran a red light and slammed into an SUV, authorities said.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Two people were killed Thursday when a driver fleeing a Midtown traffic stop ran a red light and slammed into an SUV, authorities said.

Just when we thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse! Rage, fear, selfishness, stress and lapses in judgment have again littered Atlanta’s roads and filled some more slabs in morgues in the past week. Tiny probes of these cancers of the spirit gnaw away at our consciences like Georgia termites in a wood frame. By the time they rear their ugly heads in a moment of passion and anger, the frame — that shell of moral compass — has worn away and the collapse begins.

This is the insidious way that small sparks of fervor ignite terror on Atlanta’s roads.

Suspects turned murderers in Midtown

At 2:38 a.m., on Thursday, October 20th, fear turned some suspects into murderers in Midtown.

The Georgia State Patrol reported that an Atlanta Police officer tried to make a traffic stop at Northside Drive and 17th Street. The driver of the white Toyota RAV4 immediately gunned the accelerator and sped off down the freeway-sized thoroughfare. The red light at Northside and 14th was only a suggestion to this law-fleer.

But outlaw was not their final status. The RAV4 ran the light and crushed a brand new Mitsubishi Outlander, killing driver Guillermo Barrios and front passenger Gemini Jackson. Three backseat passengers went to the hospital.

Besides the status of “killers,” the suspects also sustained serious injuries themselves and are in Grady Hospital.

Their fear led to cascading consequences that they could not have imagined in that moment of panic and self-absorption.

A nightmare commute

Last Tuesday afternoon, October 18th, was an absolute nightmare for Gwinnett County commuters. But it was even worse for a driver ejected from a vehicle after a collision on I-85/southbound north of Beaver Ruin Road.

At around 3:30 p.m., the white car of Earl Griffis IV got tagged by a white SUV. Griffis’ car flipped multiple times, passersby said. In fact, the car flipped so high that WSB Traffic Trooper Scott Jenkins, one of dozens of people who call in traffic info to our WSB 24-Hour Traffic Center, could see the car overturning from the other side of I-85.

“I saw the bottom of the car from the other side of the interstate while it was up in the air,” Jenkins texted me that evening. “It was high enough to see it above the concrete median. Then it hit the ground and tumbled two more times.”

There was debris all over I-85/southbound. The impact shortened Griffis’ sedan on both ends. But, worse, the crash flung the 40-year-old driver after striking the median wall. Griffis died. The investigation shut the freeway for almost three hours. Backups stretched back 10 miles. And the SUV fled from all of it.

Initial reports from the State Patrol indicated this crash was a result of road rage, but Gwinnett PD clarified that they are still unsure of the cause. The hit-and-run suspect is still on the loose.

If the road rage account on I-85 is true, was the cost worth the anxious, retaliatory yank of the wheel? Was the fear of being arrested worth the guilt that the suspect carries as they know they left the scene of a death? Was it worth killing someone and inconveniencing thousands of others?

Revenge on the racetrack

These Atlanta traffic tragedies unfolded in the shadow of a near-calamity in NASCAR. During last Sunday’s Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Bubba Wallace won the first stage of the race. But at the beginning of Stage 2, defending champion Kyle Larson pinched Wallace’s No. 45 Toyota into the wall, damaging it. Fighting mad, Wallace jerked his steering wheel hard to the left, across the track, at 180 mph, and right-hooked Larson’s No. 5 Chevy into the outside wall.

Larson slammed into Wallace’s quasi-teammate Christopher Bell, which likely softened Larson’s wall impact. All three drivers had race-ending damage.

Had Wallace not retaliated, he likely would have been a non-contender that day, but he could have finished the race.

Wallace exited the car, marched toward Larson and tried to fight him. Then he brushed the arm away of a NASCAR worker, who was trying to direct Wallace into an ambulance, a post-wreck ride in which is standard protocol.

NASCAR has been in deep discussions with drivers about the safety of its new car and Wallace’s own teammate, Kurt Busch, has missed months and is now essentially retiring early, because of concussions.

Wallace is the only Black driver in NASCAR’s premier series and is one of the most polarizing, because of the social stances he took in 2020. In the last few months, he has just started running at the competitive level that people expect someone in his equipment and with his profile to run. By taking those social stances, Wallace automatically became held to a far higher moral standard than he behaved in Vegas.

In a fit of rage, Wallace blatantly used his car as a weapon and NASCAR came down on him with a one-race suspension. He hurt his team and his sponsors, but also his manufacturer teammate in Bell. And a wide opinion amongst the NASCAR garage is that Wallace could have hurt or killed Larson.

Wallace also, arguably, mortgaged some of his moral high standing in the name of revenge. As the Associated Press’ Jenna Fryer wrote, “Bubba Wallace adopted the mantra of ‘Peace. Love. Understanding.’ to push back against the vitriol often hurled his way. There was nothing peaceful or understanding [about retaliating so dangerously against Larson].”

Calm and collected

Before we ever strap into a multi-ton, combustion-powered cage that is surrounded by a bunch of other ones, each carrying at least one fragile sack of blood and cells, we should set some ultimatums: “I will not overreact.” “I will not use this vehicle as a weapon.” And we — yes, me too — must stick to those axioms in all scenarios.

We need to make the decision on how we behave as drivers when we are calm and collected. Because even with those boundaries, we can be weak in tense moments. Cars sometimes plow through guardrails, but the results are worse when the guardrails aren’t even there.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on Contact him at