A little more than four years after eight people were killed in Maryland in the worst illegal drag racing incident in memory, police say a combination of law enforcement efforts have reduced the dangerous activity.
Indian Head Highway/Route 210 in Prince George's County became a scene of death and carnage on a night in February 2008, when a car plowed into a crowd of spectators who had gathered on the roadway to watch two men drag race. Today there is a small memorial of flowers and an American flag planted in the grass median of the four-lane highway where the spectators were struck.
While neither state nor county authorities maintain statistics on illegal drag racing, police officials and local residents say the problem is not as common as it once was.
"I would say the [drag racing] is less, but these folks still encounter and probably hear the loud motorcycles that are going southbound [on Route 210]. I wouldn't say we have totally eradicated it, but I would say there has been an improvement," says Maj. James Harper, the district commander of the Prince George's County Police Department, who says flashing message boards, ticket writing, and an increased police presence deserve credit for cutting down on all types of aggressive driving in the county.
"Maj. Harper was very good about putting up a blinking light when one of our members complained about the drag racing and the motorcycles and that seemed to help," says Marilyn Randall, a member of the Greater Accokeek Civic Association, who remembers the terrible scene from four years ago on Route 210.
"It affected me greatly because of the business that we have," says Randall. "The police cut off my driveway and customers could not get down."
At a nearby high performance auto parts store, however, a former drag racer says fear has worked just as effectively to deter law breakers than anything the police have done.
"I think people are just scared," says the store manager, who asked that his name and the name of his business not be disclosed. "They knew a lot of people that got hurt and they don't want to be involved in it anymore. Plus they know the police are cracking down on it."
Before the tragedy in 2008, it was common to find drag races happening almost every night of the week in the county.
"I don't hear of any more racing around here," he says. "You actually have to go north of here, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, to street race any more. I am sure there is some going on around here but not like it was before, not every weekend, three or four different spots."
Customers purchasing items to 'supe up' their cars declined requests to be interviewed, but the store manager explains why he quit drag racing.
"You get older, you get responsibilities, you get families, you get things you can start losing if you get caught," he says. "It is not like it used to be. Police used to come out and tell you to go away. Now they take your car."
Curbing aggressive driving
Illegally drag racing on a local road is not merely aggressive driving. It's not just a hobby, either. The addiction to speed can be an integral part of someone's life. The adrenaline rush, competition, defying the law and even death, and the roaring approval of the crowd feed the addiction.
"It is sort of an underground community where there are a finite group of people who get together," says Lt. Roland Butler, the commander of the Forestville barrack of the Maryland State Police. "They spend a lot of time on their cars, working on their cars, turning the wrench on their cars during the week. They actually want to test out what they have worked so hard on."
Lt. Butler says his agency teams with the county police on aggressive driving patrols that target drag racing, among other dangerous driving methods, like tailgating and unsafe lane changing.
"We try to concentrate on that with somewhere between two to four officers or troopers patrolling the roadways looking for those groups congregating in areas that are just totally unusual," Lt. Butler says. "When this happens it's usually in a less congested part of the county or a roadway not as congested as others."
In addition to law enforcement efforts, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration conducts a public awareness campaign every spring to combat aggressive driving.
"Speeding or tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic, that's all aggressive driving, and it is unsafe behavior," says MVA spokesman Buel Young. "We let you know that law enforcement is going to be out there in waves."
[Music: "Drive (in the style of R.E.M.) (instrumental version)" by Ameritz - Karaoke from R.E.M. Vol. 1]
Photos: Drag Racing