Maryland Makes the Right Call on Street Racing

Stupidity should not be illegal.

Over the President's Day holiday weekend, a tragedy occurred in southern Maryland.

According to the Washington Post,

Eight people were killed and six others injured early yesterday morning in this town about 20 miles south of Washington when a motorist unwittingly drove into a smoke-shrouded crowd of people gathered to watch an illegal street race, police said.

There's a great deal about this incident that is not known, so exactly what took place can only be the subject of speculation at this time.  It would appear that a very large group of people - several hundred - had gathered in the wee hours of the morning along a remote rural highway, to watch a street race.

Along the lines of the movie The Fast and the Furious, this race involved various private citizens with souped-up hot rods, racing each other on an ordinary stretch of road. This is obviously illegal - for speeding, if nothing else - but has a long tradition going back many decades, all over the country.

As portrayed in the movies, and as documented in other places, many times the street races are surprisingly well organized.  For instance, in California the organizers often provide a "rolling roadblock" of cars driving abreast before and behind the racers, to make sure that civilian cars are kept clear.  Other times, prearranged informal roadblocks will restrict access in the same way.

It's not known whether any precautions like this were taken at the race this weekend.  The car that caused the accident was not one of the race cars, and appears to be an ordinary Ford Crown Victoria.  The current theory is that the driver did not see the crowds because of tire-smoke and mist, and smashed into them at full speed.

Whenever eight people are gruesomely slaughtered, it's natural to expect a hue and cry to blame someone.  But the person driving the car may have a valid excuse - how could they have expected to encounter hundreds of people invisibly hidden in a cloud of smoke, on a remote highway at 3 AM?  The finger of blame therefore points at the race organizers, or the drivers themselves.

Maryland officials appear to be resisting the temptation to blame the Crown Vic driver.  According to news reports, not only are there no charges against the driver of the accident car, there are also no charges anticipated against the racing drivers, because they weren't involved in the accident.

No doubt, over the next few days, various opinion pieces and talking heads will demand prosecutions, or at the very least a tightening of the law against street racing and new enforcement actions.  For once, though, the true-blue-liberal state of Maryland has made the right call.  They've remembered - if only by accident - a very important principle:  Freedom, by definition, includes the freedom to choose to be an idiot.

Every person present at the street race was there by his own free choice.  Nobody walks down a rural highway at 3 AM without a very good reason.  They had come to watch a sporting event in which they were interested, or to profit thereby.  The street racers themselves were obviously there on purpose.  The only "innocent bystander" is the driver of the car that caused the accident!

It is inconceivable that any of the onlookers were unaware of the possible risks they were running.  It's not very safe to stand next to a highway during normal traffic, never mind a road race.  And it's ludicrously unsafe to run out into the middle of it, as the 8 victims apparently had done.

We certainly don't want to legalize street racing.  There's good reason why it's against the law: if it weren't, the police would be charged with ensuring safety, which by the nature of the activity is impossible.

Street racing is beyond the protection of the law, and should remain so.  Those who involve themselves with it know the risks they run, and consider the enjoyment and entertainment to be well worth the risk.

In this sense, it's similar to many other activities, such as skydiving and bungee-jumping.  Both these sports are fantastically dangerous - not only to the participant, but also to innocent bystanders who may be standing underneath when something breaks.  Yet, when a skydiver's parachute fails and he lands on somebody on the ground, the pilot of the plane is rightly not prosecuted for murder.

The district attorneys and Maryland State Police are to be commended for their wise decision.  Let's hope they stand by it, for they are sure to be attacked.

And let's hope that the principle involved can be clearly highlighted and put to use elsewhere.  Might we suggest a good place to start would be regarding rules regulating what you can eat?

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
This article should be titled "Maryland PARTIALLY Makes the Right Call on Street Racing"

While I agree that the Crown Vic driver should not be charged (which is obvious - none of this was even remotely his fault), it's wrong to say that the race organizers and drivers shouldn't be charged.

They broke the law in any number of ways. Speeding, reckless driving, reckless endangerment, public safety hazard, jaywalking - they broke just about EVERY single traffic or public safety violation you can think of.

Furthermore, the Crown Vic driver (the single innocent bystander in all this) was hurt. He may have only had a few broken bones, cuts and scrapes, but that IS something. I would go as far as to say that the race organizers and drivers should get aggravated assult or even attempted murder. The fact that they did not intend to kill anyone does not change the fact that they KNEW their actions easily could kill someone should an accident happen. That is simple common sense. It doesn't take much to kill someone when you're driving cars 150+ MPH on public roads.

Had the race organizers and drivers only been the ones injured throughout the event, I wouldn't have cared about the more serious charges (though they should still get the traffic violations) but harming innocent 3rd party drivers is WAY over the line.

Sorry, scragged, you got it wrong on this one.
February 18, 2008 12:17 PM
By the way, your other examples are wildly unrelated from this event.

"when a skydiver's parachute fails and he lands on somebody on the ground, the pilot of the plane is rightly not prosecuted for murder"

Skydiving is not illegal, street racing. Skydiving is ONLY dangerous to the person doing it, no on else. In street racing, anyone and everyone close to the event (whether they are part of it or someone who is just driving through) is at high risk. And, come one... landing on someone? Get serious. When has that ever happened?

"Might we suggest a good place to start, would be regarding rules regulating what you can eat?"

Again, unrelated. What YOU eat only affects YOU. No one else. It is not possible to harm some other person by how much you harm your own body. When driving cars 150+ MPH on public roads, it's hard NOT to harm other people.

You are mixing to very different issues here.

I agree with the motorcycle helmet issue that you are trying to speak to. The idea is - if it's not possible to harm someone else, why regulate a standard? It is not physically possible to harm ANOTHER person if you drive a motorcycle without wearing a helmet. So they shouldn't be regulated. You can ONLY harm yourself.

You are trying to merge that issue into this MD street racing example, but they are different. Street racing VERY much does affect lots of other people as demonstrated by last night's events. This has happened in LA several times - innocent people getting killed or severly injured after wondering into a street race.
February 18, 2008 12:23 PM
Ifon brings up the old, and VER DIFFICULT issue of complicity in harm. By definition, the race drivers and / or organizers committed a crime, to be sure, given that what they did was against the law. HOWEVER, the organizers / drivers did NOT injure the Crown Vic driver. The spectators who created a road hazard caused his injuries; he did NOT hit any of the racers.

Back during the Viet Nam war, protesters would hand out anti-war leaflets and pro-war cops would arrest them for littering when THE PEOPLE WHO WERE GIVEN THE LEAFLETS dropped them on the ground. The US Supreme Court said that the people who actually dropped the leaflets were doing the littering, not the people who handed them out.

This issue is very real; it comes with subtleties wrapped in obscurities and shrouded in judgment calls.

In this case, the spectators caused the accident, not the drivers or organizers. Reasonable men can differ on how far to extend complicity. It was only recently that "felony murder" laws were passed which made it possible to charge the driver of the getaway car with murder if the guy who actually entered the bank ended up killing a guard.
February 18, 2008 12:30 PM
The spectators were all part of the race organization. In street racing, the only people that know the location are the people involved. They don't publicize the event because it's illegal and they'll get thrown in jail for the night. The race organizers, drivers and spectators are ALL the same crowd.

I don't care who, specifically, you charge in the event - maybe all of them - but saying that the street racing group did not harm anyone but themselves if wrong. Furthermore, it sets a bad example which is half of what punishment is all about.

Complicity IS a delicate issue but it's also a REAL issue like emotional distress or public safety violation or child endangement (all issues that many conservatives disavow all together).

The fact that the writer has to use wildly unrelated examples at the end of this article help to prove my point. His examples do not speak to injuring OTHERS, only one's self.
February 18, 2008 12:36 PM
Thomas Moore said "HOWEVER, the organizers / drivers did NOT injure the Crown Vic driver"

I say they did because of cause and effect because they wer ethe ones that created the smoke which in turn created the blurred vision.

The spectators were in an illegal situation and for that Thomas Moore is right but the drivers are not innocent.
February 18, 2008 5:26 PM
Honda (or Ford, or whoever) manufactured the car that can GO 150 MPH. Doubtless the thought has occurred to them that someone might actually drive it that fast and get in a race. Are they complicit?

Street racing uses high-octane gasoline that you can't get just anywhere. Is whoever sold the good stuff complicit?

No doubt some of the audience, and maybe even the racers themselves, were underage. Should the parents be liable for not knowing where their kids were at 3 AM?

The trouble with chains of complicity is that they go on forever. At what remove do you stop? And as we see in so many circumstances, once the government starts down that path, the ending is ALWAYS the death of some aspect of our freedom. What form that might take is open to debate, but it's always something. Laws requiring speed-governors on cars? Banning high-octane gas? Banning any non-manufacturer-authorized modifications to cars? Exactly that approach has been suggested with computers and electronics equipment in response to the downloaded-music controversy. Is that where we want to head?
February 18, 2008 6:19 PM
This is more stretching and obfuscation.

Honda and Ford do not advise anyone to go over the speed limit. In fact, the owner's manuals say the exact opposite.

There was no "chain of complicity" here. It was simple and direct. A group of people broke the law and a bunch of people got injured (including an innocent bystander). If that isn't direct causality - nothing is.

The manufacturers of a particular tool have no intent to break the law or harm another person just because the USER of the tool do.

The street racers DID intend to break the law, did they not?
February 19, 2008 8:10 AM
lfon -- The problem I see with your argument is implicating the group for the actions of a few. Standing on the side of the road, while dangerous, isn't illegal as far as I am aware. It certainly shouldn't carry "aggravated assult or even attempted murder" charges.

The group of people there that night as a whole didn't break the law. Some of its members did. The racers broke laws against street racing, and the people who walked into the road broke laws against jaywalking, but that's the extent of the lawbreaking that occured.

Furthermore, the driver does share some complicity in this. He was evidently driving too fast for the road conditions that existed, and thus demonstrated negligence as well. Seeing the smoke obstructing his view, he should have slowed down to a rate of speed that would allow him to negotiate that area safely, just as if it were a fog bank.
February 19, 2008 11:57 AM
Latest news reports would indicate that there are now NO innocent parties involved. The driver of the Crown Vic wasn't involved with the street racing, true... but he was driving at 3 AM with NO headlights. There's a proximate cause right there - if he'd had his lights on, he would have seen the big cloud of smoke and debris (if nothing else) in plenty of time to stop.
February 19, 2008 11:58 AM
As I said previously, I don't really care who is charged, but *someone* should be. This article asserted that no one should be charged which is flatly absurd - laws were broken. If part of the group was just standing on the side of the road, obviously nothing applies to them. But someone put the race together, knowing that it was both illegal and that it was extremely dangerous.

As a side note, why don't these groups pay for private race tracks? According to blogs that cover street racing, it is common for some of these groups to spend tens of thousands on their cars and equipment. Some of the purses are equally large. Why not pay a few grand to rent out a track for a day. I would guess it's because the illegality and potential danger of the event is part of the thrill.

Not charging anyone is ridiculous. Whatever happened to regular police investigations? Find who dun' it with some good ole fashion shoe leather and punish them.

(If the Crown Vic driver was driving with his lights off - and that can be proven - then he should be charged too)
February 19, 2008 12:09 PM
I wonder how anyone can know definitively that the Crown Vic's lights were out.


1) How many people can drive with their lights off in the middle of the night?
2) In a front-end accident, the lights are the first thing to break.
3) Crown Victoria headlights have been coming with auto-on (they turn on automatically in the dark) for at least a decade, I would estimate. The upper-middle touring cars that Ford and GM make have been using those since the mid 90s.

I'd bet ten to 1 that the street people are the ones making that claim and they're doing it to shift the blame.
February 19, 2008 12:25 PM
And now the police reveal that the Crown Vic driver was driving on a suspended license, and had no right to be on the road at all. What's more, according to MD state law, a pedestrian ALWAYS has the right of way, even if they are jaywalking. So there is definitely no innocent victim here.
February 20, 2008 9:33 AM
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