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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

No Stopping Racing in the Streets

Maryland Authorities Seek to Ban Street Racing After Tragic Crash Kills 8 People

In the middle of the night, a lonely stretch of rural road can become a raceway in a matter of seconds.

In souped-up Hondas and Ford Mustangs, drivers line up side by side, spinning their wheels to warm their tires, kicking up clouds of choking smoke in the process. Sometimes up to several hundred street-racing fans crowd the shoulder, called together by quick cell phone calls. The racers tear off, with wheels squealing and engines roaring, in sprints that can reach 120 mph.

Then the race dissolves as quickly as it formed, with fans and drivers disappearing into the night before the police arrive.

20-year-old Cyril Pittman Jr., 20, put a more powerful engine in his 1992 Honda station wagon and used to go up against other street racers at a Maryland industrial park until the police shut them down. "Once you get into it, it's hard to get out because of the thrill," he said. "You get excited. You feel an adrenaline rush."

Since the automobile was invented, there has been street racing. It has long been celebrated in song and on film, from James Dean's "Rebel Without a Cause" in the 1950s to Bruce Springsteen’s 1970’s chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected rock anthems, and recent movies like "The Fast and the Furious."

Authorities around the country are often helpless to prevent street races, despite stepped-up patrols, speed bumps, the seizure of cars and the risk of deadly accidents like the one that killed eight spectators in Maryland in February.

Matt Jewell, president of the Maryland Street Racing Association, which organizes races on tracks but does not condone illegal races on public streets, said, "This is something that has gone on for a long time. I don't see it stopping."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s statistics reveal that 804 people were killed in racing-related crashes between 2001 and 2006. California had 188 of those deaths, and Texas was second with 128.

Despite declining in the first half of the decade, street-racing deaths are on the rise again, climbing roughly 35 percent from 111 in 2005 to 150 in 2006, NHTSA said.

In the Maryland accident, a motorist who was apparently passing through the area about 10 miles from the nation's capital plowed into a crowd of people who had gathered to watch a race in the darkness on a remote stretch of divided highway.

Prince George's County officials plan to step up patrols of known race sites. Some Maryland lawmakers are working to introduce legislation that would allow authorities to use cameras to catch speeders and discourage street racing.

"You've got a group of people who are secretive," said Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson. "They gather, and within 30 seconds they move out. It's been very difficult for our police department" to stop racing.

Other cities and states have experienced mixed success when they tried to stop street racing.

After seizing cars, authorities in California have them publicly crushed at junkyards. State law makes street racing punishable with prison time, and in some counties it’s illegal to even watch a race.

On stretches of roads popular with racers, some communities in Washington State have installed short speed bumps to keep drivers from building up speed. Kent County, near Seattle, went so far as to invite drivers to compete against police cars in the relative safety of a track. Few showed up.

Kent police Officer Paul Petersen said, "The thrill of it all, in part, is getting away from the police."

Young racers, in their teens and early 20s, fit their imported cars with nitrous oxide tanks to give the engines more power. But older fans and drivers, who prefer older domestic models like Mustangs, are also drawn to the sport.

In the Maryland crash, eight people were killed and at least five injured. The youngest was 15, the oldest, 61.

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