The spread of teenage drag racing raises red flags

Young street racers have been drawn to a straight swath of Lynn Marsh Road in Revere, Mass., for as long as Capt. Michael Murphy of the Revere Police Department can remember.

But in the past five years, what was once possibly a casual race with a few kids has grown into a more sophisticated spectacle. He says some of the characteristics of races in California, long the cradle of America's street racing set, glorified in "The Fast and the Furious" movies, have found their way East.

Statistics from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles reveal that citations for drag racing increased from 510 in 2002 to 578 last year.

"It has crept our way," Captain Murphy says.

Now officials want that to change. Recently in Massachusetts, in a two-week period alone, two deadly crashes among teens - one involving high speed late at night, the other an apparent drag race - have cut five lives short.

The accidents come as lawmakers seek to rein in teen driving rights in an effort to cut down on crashes. The legislation mirrors action in statehouses across the country, as parents, police, and politicians grapple with an accident rate per mile for teens that is four times that of older drivers.

Officials say inexperience behind the wheel often plays a role, but so does risky behavior and bad judgment. The number of fatalities of teens involving speed - including driving too fast for conditions, in excess of the limit, or racing - has crept up in recent years. Forty-five percent of fatalities for teen drivers ages 16 to 20 involved speed in 2003, up from 43 percent in 1999, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"What the safety community is seeing now is that we made gains in seat belt use and in drunk driving, but those gains are being offset by lack of progress on speeding ... which is particularly a problem with young males," says Barbara Harsha, the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Street racing was glorified in 1973 with George Lucas's "American Graffiti" and in 2001 with "The Fast and the Furious" and its 2003 sequel. But long after premieres and box office tallies have come and gone, officials across the country continue to wage war against the love for speed, the chase, and a rush of adrenaline. Teens are not the only ones who participate in street racing, and racing is just one factor - including speeding, drinking, and error - in teen fatalities each year.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts want to fight these factors with a bill that would extend teen training periods in class and behind the wheel with a supervisor, and give police greater power to enforce curfew and passenger restrictions.

While almost all states have some sort of graduated licensing system in place, their rules vary greatly, says Russ Rader, a spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Recently, many have gotten tougher: setting driving curfews earlier or barring teens from using cell-phones while driving.

To the backdrop of the legislative movement is a debate on whether to raise the driving age limit altogether, says Ms. Harsha. But that debate hasn't gone very far, partly because many parents balk at the idea of two extra years of chauffeuring their children. "It's a very political issue, particularly in farm states," she says.

Some places have taken steps to control racing, rather than eradicate it. Take San Diego: One Friday night in September 2001, patrol officers tallied all the cars gathered at a local drag racing spot. They counted 1,200.

"Patrol officers were busy writing tickets, but it was not having an impact. The problem was getting bigger," says John Austin, a detective at the San Diego Police Department.

With grant money, the department established a full-time unit called Dragnet whose sole purpose has been fighting drag racing. They also pushed the City Council to make watching drag races a crime and forfeiture of a car the possible punishment for racing. They steered drivers to a local stadium where races are sanctioned and legal on certain evenings.

So far, Detective Austin says, the program has worked. In 2002, there were 16 deaths directly related to street racing. Last year there were none.

But while Austin says his unit hears from officials around the world seeking more information on their program, not everyone thinks that sanctioned racing is a good idea. "[Such programs] simply encourage teens to drive fast, and give them a false sense of security," says Mr. Rader. "What guarantee is there that they won't drive like that on streets?"

In Revere, Murphy says that even with increased patrols and tougher laws, the problem won't end without the cooperation of parents, who often watch blindly as their kids "soup up" their Honda Accords and Acuras.

"Even if we are successful [on Lynn Marsh Road], it will only send them somewhere else. ...They are going to race, and they are going to crash, because they are not nearly the accomplished drivers that they think they are," he says. "They are kids."

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