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Too Fast, Too Fatal: An Insider's Look at Street Racing

(updated May 5th, 2009)

For most of us, the adrenaline rush that comes from watching Vin Diesel speed away in a souped-up Honda Civic coupe is enough to satisfy our appetite for high speed. But for many, street racing is more than a Hollywood thriller; it's a way of life. Whether you're a full-fledged street-racing junkie or a first-time car owner jumping into the aftermarket scene, there are a few things you should know.

High-Speed Hobby

Many young drivers admit to being stopped at a red light and feeling the urge, maybe for just a second, to stomp on the gas pedal and see if their car can outrun the other driver's in the adjacent lane. But if you happen to end up next to Eddie Thurman, a 22-year-old bamboo grower from South Jersey, New Jersey, don't underestimate his Kia sedan. It boasts a reported 438 horsepower thanks to the aftermarket turbo kit he installed.

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Sometimes Thurman and his friends go to the nearby track, but they prefer street racing because the track charges a fee and doesn't let drivers choose who they race. Plus, many drivers crave the adrenaline rush they get from racing on the street.

Most of Thurman's friends also race. They enjoy fixing up cars, modifying them and testing their speed, but they never race for money. They also disapprove of racing in high-traffic zones and on highways. Thurman and his friends organize meetings on empty streets and in rural areas. When asked if he thinks street racing is dangerous, Thurman replies, "We race smart.

"Seventeen-year-old kids with fast cars who don't know how to drive them: They make it dangerous, but out here in the country it's pretty safe. Now, in Philadelphia, they just hold up traffic to race. They just start racing on any road. They don't care if there's traffic.... That's dangerous."

Fast and Fatal in Southern California

Sergeant Skip Showalter has seen the tragedy and loss of life caused by street racers. He leads the Riverside, California, police department's fight against street racing and has helped develop programs to educate the public about its real dangers.

"I remember one week when seven fatalities in the Southern California area were related to street racing. Unfortunately, it's gaining popularity," says Showalter.

According to Showalter, racetracks offer a legal and safe alternative to street racing. However, he concedes that recent track closings and limited hours make it difficult to move racers off the streets and onto the track. Sometimes, though, "they just use that as an excuse," says Showalter. "We still catch people out on the streets that go to the track regularly.... Part of the appeal for them seems to be the street itself, the adrenaline rush."

Showalter's work isn't just about chasing down street racers and writing tickets. He has worked with local schools to launch education programs where convicted street racers, like Trais Hand, talk to students about their experiences and the danger of racing on public roads. Hand was just 16 when he lost control of his car in a street race and killed a wheelchair-bound single mother in front of her two children. Today, Hand uses this experience in an appeal to his peers, hoping that they'll steer clear of street racing.

Other organizations, like Racers Against Street Racing (RASR), also strive to prevent street racing by encouraging safe and legal alternatives. RASR is a coalition of automotive manufacturers, aftermarket parts companies, racetracks and others whose goal is to "provide a professional controlled environment in which today's sport compact enthusiasts can participate in automotive-related events throughout the United States."

The group is administered by the Sport Compact Council, a division of the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA). RASR makes it easy to find an alternative to street racing by listing racetracks around the country with organized activities that include late-night drags, test and tune events and gamblers' races.

Aftermarket Anarchy

Vehicle modifications are at the center of the street racing controversy and are a major factor in its potential dangers. Unfortunately, what new drivers don't realize is that vehicles are manufactured from the tires up for certain purposes. As Alessandro Argentino, a member of street-racing-enthusiast Facebook group "Street Warriors," points out, "The reason sports cars and high-class exotics cost so much is not just because of the engine, it's also that they have the suspension, brakes and steering to be able to handle 200 mph without losing control."

Argentino has seen what can happen when amateur drivers fail to take that into account. "The idiot took his traction control off his IS 300 and lost control and put the back of the car into the guardrail," Argentino says of one of his friends. "For some reason he thought the traction control was making his car slower, when in fact his car was just not as powerful as the one he was racing against."

It's tempting for law enforcement officials to target vehicles that have the aftermarket modifications commonly associated with street racing. Therefore, many states have placed bans on various types of tinted windows, halo lights, nitrous oxide, aftermarket mufflers and other modifications.

These laws are sometimes vague, and racers and car enthusiasts rightfully resent the misconception that everyone with a modified vehicle is involved in illegal street racing. However, as Sergeant Showalter explains, "It can be difficult to prove that someone was street racing and not just speeding." That's why lawmakers and police often use aftermarket modifications as a way of distinguishing between street racing offenders and common speeders.

SEMA has formed the SEMA Action Network (SAN), a political action network to guard against what it calls "legislative attacks to its hobby." One example of a SAN-supported initiative is the 95-decibel limit that sets an objective test for measuring whether a vehicle meets state noise standards.

To see what types of aftermarket products and modifications are permitted in your state, check SAN's Web site.

High Speed at a High Price

No one knows for sure how many deaths and accidents street racing is responsible for each year. During an accident investigation, it's often difficult to distinguish between street racing and reckless driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that between 1998 and 2001 there were 149,568 fatal crashes, and estimates that 315 (0.21 percent) involved street racing, resulting in 399 fatalities.

Adrienne Seggie knows all too well the tragedy of reckless driving and the lack of clear laws about street racing. Her son, Matthew Power, was killed on her birthday last November by an alleged street racer in Ontario, Canada, when he was crossing the street.

"He didn't stand a chance," says Seggie. "The impact was so hard that we couldn't see his body for four days. All for the thrill of driving extremely fast in a pedestrian zone.... Words can never describe the feeling of loss."

Seggie and her family have created a Web site and joined forces with other victims to support laws against street racing and raise awareness of its dangers.

Like it or not, street racing is a reality, and one that raises the specter of tragedy for each and every person on our public roads. Putting an end to it may not be realistic, but combining education, awareness and safe alternatives is our hope of addressing the problem.

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