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Maryland Makes the Right Call on Street Racing

Stupidity should not be illegal.

By Petrarch  |  February 18, 2008

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?