We’ve seen the videos: Cars slows to a halt on a busy highway. Engines rev, tires slip, rubber burns, and a vehicle lurches to life, spinning in circles across the empty lanes of what was, seconds earlier, a continuous rush of traffic. A parade of souped-up cars take turns careening across the road. Spectators get out of their cars and onto the highway, phones held high, ready to capture the latest Dallas rendition of the Tokyo Drift, with some creeping perilously close to the spinning vehicles and reaching out to tap the bumpers of the massive machines that fling across the road.
Street racing and performing incidents have proliferated in 2020, an escalation of a trend that has spread across many American cities in recent years. According to the Dallas Police Department, incidents of street racing — which includes drag racing, as well as highway shutdowns, donut performances, takeovers, drifting, burnouts and the like — have nearly doubled in 2020, from 4,867 in 2019 to 8,441 this year. In May, the Dallas City Council passed a new street racing ordinance to give police officers more leverage in cracking down on these incidents. Next week, the department will brief the council on how those ongoing efforts are going.
The stepped-up enforcement efforts have led to an increase in citations, arrests, and auto impoundments. Dallas police officers have already issued an incredible 14,000 citations this year for speeding and racing activities, including 612 citations given to spectators at speeding and racing incidents. They have made 1,196 arrests, which have resulted in 184 felony charges, 48 seized guns, 72 incidents of narcotics seizure, and the towing of 659 vehicles. Police have also recovered 34 stolen vehicles while disrupting speeding and racing activities.
And yet, the events continue.
Their popularity is driven by social media. Videos of the so-called “takeovers,” “street drifting,” or “burnout” events are posted online and some go viral. The enthusiasm of the spectators — and their apparent lack of fear of getting identified in the videos — speaks to their appeal: an intense rush of adrenaline, a sense of bravado and communal pride, the black swirls of burnt rubber that leave a graffiti-like claim on the surface of the city street. Social media also helps organizers coordinate the events and elude authorities after the participants disperse.
The “takeovers” aren’t new. They have been proliferating in recent years, particularly in cities with ample streets, concrete, and highways. By 2018, police in Los Angeles were blaming the Fast and the Furious franchise for helping to popularize street racing and takeovers. Earlier this year, Vice examined the phenomenon’s popularity in Texas in a short documentary entitled “The Biggest Burnouts are in Texas.” Atlanta has seen a similar rise in street racing as pandemic lockdowns have led young people to seek new forms of entertainment and diversion, and community leaders there want to find ways to stop the dangerous events without throwing more kids into the judicial system.
The incidents are not only dangerous for participants; they can also be threatening to police officers. DPD says that within the past 60 days, multiple officers have had bottles and fireworks thrown at them, and one officer was struck by a vehicle. DPD is holding monthly conversations with police departments in other cities in an effort to find new ways to prevent or disrupt street racing incidents, including discussing enforcement tactics and intelligence strategies to try to uncover planned events before they occur.
One of the challenges police face is legislative. In addition to the ordinance the Dallas City Council passed in May, police have been charging participants with offenses related to the Riot Statue and the Clean Air Act. The department plans to ask for council support to push for state legislative changes to add street racing, speeding exhibition, and reckless driving language to a variety of state laws, ranging from the code of criminal procedure to the transportation code.
But there’s another proposal the police department will present to the council that really jumps out. One way to stop street racing is to fix Dallas’ streets. DPD suggests a cross-departmental effort called “Operation Road Diet” that could shut off lanes of city streets and, potentially, open them up for other uses, such as pedestrian spaces or bike lanes. It is a curious proposal coming from a police department. Road diets are typically the purview of urban advocates, who argue that America’s cities have been overbuilt for cars, providing way too many vehicle lanes that encourage speeding and dangerous driving, while stealing public right of way from other uses, such as walking, biking, and public space . Now the police sees another value in shrinking the city’s streets: decrease the amount of space for street racing.
Councilman David Blewett represents downtown, Uptown, and East Dallas, neighborhoods that have seen a significant increase in street racing activity. Earlier this year, he told our Matt Goodman that he started asking questions about whether changing the street design could be a deterrent. He said it worked and also encouraged more pedestrian activity.
“I talked to public works and in other parts of my district I did road diets and other things to slow down traffic,” he said. “It worked to a large degree. So now you come up with this, ‘hey if you take a lane away temporarily it doesn’t have an impact on traffic flow and people are more active and out and about. What if you do this permanently? Then it gets interesting.”
It makes perfect sense. After all, we’ve designed our streets like race tracks — is it that surprising that bored, cooped up kids now want to drive on those same streets as if they were race car drivers? While I possess a very measured empathy for the young people who are thrilling themselves with burnouts and the like this year, I also understand why the events have to be stopped before stories like the death of an infamous Georgian street drifter in a car crash become more common.
Perhaps one element of a long-term solution lies precisely in non-punitive actions like rethinking the streetscape. Give kids a reason to get out of their cars. Then we old folks can get back to shaking our fists at them for safer street-bound acts of self-expression, like skateboarding and graffiti.