J.Aye Sanford, a 52-year-old mother of two, was driving home in the suburbs of Atlanta on Nov. 21 when a man in a Dodge Challenger muscle car that allegedly drove on street races hit her head-on, killing her.
Friends remembered Sanford as kind and thoughtful, but now she will be remembered for something else, too: a new state law that introduces jail sentences to all drag racing and stunt driving convictions.
Illegal drag racing has grown in popularity across America since the coronavirus pandemic began, with dangerous upward movements reported from Georgia and New York to New Mexico and Oregon.
Road racers block roads and even highways to keep the police out while they spin around and perform stunts that are often captured on viral videos. Vehicle packages, from souped-up jalopies to high-end sports cars, rush through the streets of the city, through industrial districts and on country roads.
Experts say TV shows and movies that glorify street racing have already piqued interest in recent years.
Then, clogged shutdowns related to the pandemic usually cleared clogged highways while commuters worked from home.
Those with a passion for fast cars have often had time to modify and show them off, said Tami Eggleston, a sports psychologist who participates in legal drag racing.
“With COVID, when we were separated from people, people in their interest groups kind of connected,” said Eggleston, who is also the provost of McKendree University, a small college in suburban St. Louis. “The need to socialize and be with other people brought out the racing drivers.”
But people were killed. The growl of engines and traffic delays have become a major nuisance. It has been reported that racers use guns and scatter beer cans in parking lots.
Police are now stepping up enforcement in many cities, and states are fighting back with new laws.
Aurora Police have announced that they will take action against owners of cars found to be involved in road races, regardless of whether the owner was behind the wheel. Investigators said they plan to notify owners of cars that have been found to be reckless, negligent, or race with a letter asking them not to re-engage in such activities.
The letter states: “As a vehicle owner, you are hereby notified that you must use good faith efforts to prevent any person, through appropriate measures or otherwise, from doing any of the above or any other act related to road racing again commits law with your vehicle, “after an extract provided by the police.”
If the owner’s vehicle is found to be involved in races after receiving the letter from the authorities, they may face charges in a city court, which could result in jail sentences or fines.
Similar steps are being taken across the country.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed the bill named for Sanford last week after the General Assembly passed. In addition to requiring a minimum of 10 days in prison for all drag racing convictions, the measure requires people who have been convicted a third time within five years to abandon their vehicles.
“This illegal activity is very dangerous,” said the Republican governor at a signing ceremony. “Our goal is simple: to protect every family in every community.”
In New York City, authorities received more than 1,000 drag racing complaints in six months last year – almost five times as much compared to the same period in 2019.
“Illegal street races put lives at risk and keep us up at night,” said New York State Senator Brad Hoylman. “There was less traffic during the pandemic, but some drivers took this as an opportunity to treat our roads like a NASCAR speedway.”
The Democratic legislature has passed laws that allow New York City to operate its speed cameras overnight and on weekends at hotspots for illegal street racing. The Senate’s Transport Committee recently unanimously approved the measure and prepared it for a floor vote.
In Mississippi, Republican Governor Tate Reeves signed law in March allowing state troops to respond to incidents in cities. On New Year’s Eve, drivers blocked traffic on a freeway in Jackson, the state’s capital, for an hour while they spun, made donuts and etched circles in the sidewalk.
Although the highway patrol headquarters was nearby, the soldiers were unable to respond as they were not allowed to deal with incidents in cities with populations of more than 15,000. This ban will be lifted when the new law comes into force on July 1st.
In Arizona, the Senate passed a bill to impose tougher sentences. It is now waiting for a vote in the House of Representatives. Under an ordinance approved by Phoenix City Council in March, police can seize a car that engages in road racing or reckless driving for up to 30 days.
The death toll is now increasing. On the night of May 2, a 28-year-old woman was killed in Phoenix when a road racer crashed into her car. One man was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter.
Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have been handing out thousands of speeding and racing tickets since a raid began in October.
“The ups and downs of our streets are so deadly, especially when more children, seniors, pedestrians and cyclists are around during this pandemic,” said Tim Keller, Albuquerque Mayor.
Street races in an industrial district of Portland, Oregon scare the people who work there. A motorcyclist was killed in an accident last month that appeared to be races, according to police. Businessmen wrote to the mayor and city commissioners on April 2, asking them to take action.
Kathryn, a local Portland French Bakery employee, says the curb and its 2 miles are littered with alcohol containers immediately after weekends of races and stunts on Mondays. Spray-painted lines mark the start and finish lines. Parking spaces are scarred by circular tire tracks or completely eroded in places by spinning tires.
“To be honest, many employees are afraid of going anywhere near them. There was a couple of shootouts, ”said Kathryn, who didn’t want her last name to be used because she was concerned about possible retaliation from road racers.
Portland police say they are too overwhelmed to do much about it.
“The city of Portland has seen a tremendous increase in our shooting rate, a staggering number of volatile demonstrations, while our workforce has declined,” said the incumbent Lt. Michael Roberts, charged with fighting illegal street racing. “We often don’t have the bandwidth to answer calls from road racers.”
Aurora Police have made similar statements over the past few months.
“Road racing has become a major subway and front range nuisance with a clear public safety impact. These groups and organizations are large and are becoming more and more demanding, ”said Lt. Mike Hanifin speaking to a group of councilors in February. “They are bold and encouraged in their actions. They use social media sites and live feeds to promote their illegal street races. Law enforcement agencies in general in the Subway Area and along the Front Range … are outnumbered and at a significant disadvantage. “
And in the somewhat rare case where local police can physically stop a suspected road racer, Hanifin said the current penalties for trespassing, reckless driving, or careless driving hardly discourage repetitive activity.
“If we can stop people and if people stop, they don’t even argue,” he said. “They only pay the fine because it’s not a deterrent for them.”
In Denver, police have used a helicopter to track races, block lanes often used by racing drivers, and send officers to places where racing drivers meet. On April 3, a mother was killed when a street racer spread her car in downtown Denver.
In one of its most notorious incidents on March 7, hundreds of road racers clogged a section of the freeway in nearby Aurora while they were resting and cruising. Police warned other motorists to stay out of the way after reports of guns being wielded and fireworks being fired.
Almost two months after the incident that some officials were considering a “freeway takeover,” Aurora investigators announced that an unnamed boy had been issued a criminal summons on three traffic-related charges related to the March incident. The boy, whom police did not name because he is not a legal adult, will appear in Arapahoe District Court on charges of reckless driving, driving a license and attending a speeding exhibition.
Investigators also announced more than four dozen charges – including 45 false detention cases – against a suspected organizer of the event, the 21-year-old Anthony Corona.
But Corona will not bear to face the charges brought against him when he died in a traffic accident in Broomfield on April 4, police said. In addition to the false incarceration counts, police attempted to indict Corona on conspiracy, reckless endangerment, disorderly behavior, and several other traffic-related charges.
Traffic investigators initially estimated that up to 800 cars were involved in the hour-long rally, which effectively stopped all traffic going south on I-225 between East Alameda Avenue and East Colfax Avenue. But police later said it was unclear how many people were on the highway to race and how many were involved in the fracas.
Events like the one in Aurora have added urgency to the Colorado State Patrol’s longstanding efforts to lure road racers into a safer environment. The agency’s Take it to the Track program features weekly competitions at Bandimere Speedway at the foot west of Denver.
“You can bring out anything you have, be it a supercar or mom’s minivan, grandpa’s Buick,” trooper Josh Lewis said on the circuit last week. “And you can compete against a cop, and legally.”
Lewis then hit a Toyota SUV on the quarter mile route and hit 142 km / h in his Dodge Charger.
Ray Propes, 58, started road racing at age 16 but now prefers the Bandimere Speedway for its traction and safety.
“You don’t have to worry about accidents, animals, children, birds, anything,” he said.
Associate Press Reporter Thomas Peipert in Denver; Maria Villeneuve in Albany, New York; Emily Wagster in Jackson, Mississippi; Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Jonathan J. Cooper of Phoenix contributed to this report.