US cities see surge in deadly street racing amid pandemic
Jaye Sanford, a 52-year-old mother of two, was driving home in the suburbs of Atlanta on Nov. 21 when a man in a Dodge Challenger muscle car that allegedly drove on road crashed into her head-on, killing her.
Friends remembered Sanford as kind and thoughtful, but now she will be remembered for something else, too: a new state law that introduces jail sentences to all drag racing and stunt driving convictions.
Road racers block roads and even highways to keep the police out while they spin around and perform stunts that are often captured on viral videos. Vehicle packages, from souped-up jalopies to high-end sports cars, rush through the streets of the city, through industrial districts and on country roads.
Experts say TV shows and films that glorify street racing have already piqued interest in recent years.
Then clogged pandemic-related shutdowns that normally cleared clogged highways while commuters worked from home.
Those with a passion for fast cars have often had time to modify and show them off, said Tami Eggleston, a sports psychologist who participates in legal drag racing.
“With COVID, when we were apart from people, people in their interest groups kind of connected,” said Eggleston, who is also the provost of McKendree University, a small college in suburban St. Louis. “The need to socialize and be with other people brought out the racing drivers.”
But people were killed. The growl of engines and traffic delays have become a major nuisance. It has been reported that racers use guns and scatter beer cans in parking lots.
Police are now stepping up enforcement in many cities, and states are fighting back with new laws.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed the Sanford bill last week after passing the General Assembly. Not only does the measure provide for a minimum of 10 days’ imprisonment for all drag racing convictions, it also requires those convicted a third time within five years to abandon their vehicles.
“This illegal activity is very dangerous,” said the Republican governor at a signing ceremony. “Our goal is simple: to protect every family in every community.”
In New York City, authorities received more than 1,000 complaints about drag racing last year – a five-fold increase over the same period in 2019.
“Illegal street races put lives at risk and keep us up at night,” said Senator Brad Hoylman of New York State. “There was less traffic during the pandemic, but some drivers took this as an opportunity to treat our roads like a NASCAR speedway.”
The Democratic legislature has passed laws that allow New York City to operate its speed cameras overnight and on weekends at hotspots for illegal street racing. The Senate’s Transport Committee recently unanimously approved the measure and prepared it for a floor vote.
In Mississippi, Republican Governor Tate Reeves signed law in March allowing state troops to respond to incidents in cities. On New Year’s Eve, drivers blocked traffic on a freeway in Jackson, the state capital, for an hour while they spun, made donuts and etched circles in the sidewalk.
Although the highway police headquarters was nearby, the soldiers were unable to respond because they were not allowed to deal with incidents in cities with populations of more than 15,000. This ban will be lifted when the new law comes into force on July 1st.
In Arizona, the Senate passed a bill to impose tougher sentences. It is now waiting for a vote in the House of Representatives. Under an ordinance approved by Phoenix City Council in March, police can seize a car that engages in road racing or reckless driving for up to 30 days.
The death toll is now increasing. On the night of May 2, a 28-year-old woman was killed in Phoenix when a road racer crashed into her car. One man was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter.
Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have been handing out thousands of speeding and racing tickets since a raid began in October.
“The ups and downs of our streets are so deadly, especially when more children, seniors, pedestrians and cyclists are around during this pandemic,” said Tim Keller, Albuquerque Mayor.
Street races in an industrial district of Portland, Oregon scare the people who work there. A motorcyclist was killed in an accident last month that appeared to be races, according to police. Businessmen wrote to the mayor and city commissioners on April 2, asking them to take action.
Kathryn, a local Portland French Bakery employee, says the curb and its two miles are littered with alcohol containers immediately after weekends of races and stunts on Mondays. Spray-painted lines mark the start and finish lines. Parking spaces are scarred by circular tire tracks or completely eroded in places by spinning tires.
“To be honest, many employees are afraid of going anywhere near them. There was a couple of shootouts, ”said Kathryn, who didn’t want her last name to be used because she was concerned about possible retaliation from road racers.
Portland police say they are too overwhelmed to do much about it.
“The city of Portland has seen a tremendous increase in our shooting rate, a staggering number of volatile demonstrations, while our workforce has declined,” said the acting Lt. Michael Roberts, charged with fighting illegal street racing. “We often don’t have the bandwidth to answer calls from road racers.”
In Denver, police have used a helicopter to track races, block lanes often used by racing drivers, and send officers to places where racing drivers meet. On April 3, a mother was killed when a street racer spread her car in downtown Denver.
In one of its most notorious incidents on March 7, hundreds of road racers clogged a section of the freeway in nearby Aurora while they were resting and cruising. Police warned other motorists to stay out of the way after reports of guns being wielded and fireworks being fired.
The events added urgency to the longstanding efforts of the Colorado State Patrol to lure road racers into a safer environment. The agency’s Take it to the Track program features weekly competitions at Bandimere Speedway at the foot west of Denver.
“You can bring out anything you have, be it a supercar or mom’s minivan, grandpa’s Buick,” trooper Josh Lewis said on the circuit last week. “And you can compete against a cop, and legally.”
Lewis then hit a Toyota SUV on the quarter mile route and hit 142 km / h in his Dodge Charger.
Ray Propes, 58, started road racing when he was 16 but now prefers the Bandimere Speedway for its traction and safety.
“You don’t have to worry about accidents, animals, children, birds, anything,” he said.
Associate Press Reporter Thomas Peipert in Denver; Maria Villeneuve in Albany, New York; Emily Wagster in Jackson, Mississippi; Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Jonathan J. Cooper of Phoenix contributed to this report.