Drag or street racing on public roads is nothing new. It occurs with regularity here and elsewhere across the country. It has become, for better or worse, an integral part of American culture thoroughly explored in books and films. Such popularity and acceptance, however, do not legitimize the activity. Cars purposely racing down a public street or highway at a high rate of speed are always dangerous and are always illegal.
That's rarely proved a deterrent. Laws against such racing are routinely ignored. Four men here, for example, have been charged in connection with two incidents of drag racing. Their track of choice? Interstate 75 near Hamilton Place Mall and the Shallowford Road exit. The drivers allegedly reached speeds of about 100 mph on a stretch of the heavily traveled road where the posted speed limit is 55 mph. The dangers posed by such activity are self-evident.
Trouble is, it is often difficult for the police to minimize the danger. Some of the races are spontaneous. Two drivers stop at a traffic light, glance at one another, gun their engines and then zoom off with tires squealing when the red light turns green. Unless they happen upon such a scene, there's little the police can do to stop that sort of event. The public provides valuable assistance, though.
Other drivers, understandably worried about their own and others' safety on the roads, often call 911 to report drag races in progress. Others take cell phone or other pictures of cars -- and their license plates -- involved in the races, then forward them to police. Sometimes such tips prove useful and drag racers are apprehended. More often than not, though, even a quick response to such tips yields little of use. By the time police arrive, the offending drivers have fled the scene.
The quartet charged with drag racing late last month and earlier this month, however, appear to be involved in a far less spontaneous activity. A police official says the races in which they were apprehended were planned events that were well publicized on a Web site. Police accessed the information, then used unmarked cars to stake out the place where the races were to take place and to make arrests. That's good police work that arguably helped prevent serious injuries or worse to the drivers involved, to other motorists who unknowingly shared the interstate with the racers and to spectators foolishly gathered on the roadside to witness the event.
Drag races like those that prompted the recent arrests here are not rare. Indeed, Chattanooga police traffic investigator Joe Warren says that drag races are almost commonplace. They occur "every weekend that the weather is good." Police efforts to combat the phenomenon are on-going, but somewhat limited by the necessity of the broad demands of law enforcement.
No one argues about the dangers that street racing poses, but it is equally true that those charged with enforcing traffic laws can't always give it the time and detailed attention it deserves. That's certainly true here. Traffic division officers rightly spend a great deal of their duty time enforcing rules against drunk or reckless driving, the traffic laws most often violated. Still, regular enforcement of street racing laws is important. It sends an important message to those who scoff at the rules.
The penalties for violating the law are suitably stiff. First offenders face hefty fines and the loss off their drivers license for a year. Second offenders can lose their drivers license for life. And it's not uncommon for the state to seize the vehicle of drivers convicted of street racing. Some might think those penalties excessive, but they are commensurate with a crime that poses such great danger to public safety.
Still, it is unlikely that strict enforcement and harsh penalties alone will stop drag racing. The effort must be a broader one. Education programs, like the one here that exposes youngsters to both the dangers of illegal drag racing as well as to legal forms of racing, are a step in the right direction. So are constant reminders that street racing is against the law and that vehicular accidents remain a leading cause of death for U.S. teens and young adults.