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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 30, 2001

Freeway racing: What comes next

The public horror at the fatal collision Sunday that killed a teacher and seriously injured her husband and mother — innocent victims, police suspect, of an illegal, high-speed car race — appears to have served to awaken us to a darker and deeper problem than most of us had imagined.

We've had freeway deaths and near-misses apparently attributable to racing before, but somehow, perhaps influenced by wishful thinking, we've tended to treat them as isolated occurrences.

This time is different.

Now police are getting a high volume of reports about what appear to be organized races commonly held on public highways in various locations in brazen disregard for the safety of the pedestrians and drivers in their path.

As a welcome counterweight to this alarming news, police are beginning to turn to what they say is "out-of-the-box" thinking for ways to curtail this brazen lawlessness. Helicopters and quick response to citizen cellular phone calls have been mentioned.

And lawmakers are responding with talk of sterner sanctions to deter this sort of behavior.

That's all to the good. What's required at this point is vigorous public discussion of where to turn next. To that end, we offer these thoughts:

• There is a clear need for more effective enforcement of our existing laws. One reason that road-racing is becoming a problem is that its perpetrators believe they can get away with it. Police need a show of force followed by new thinking and new techniques to stamp this problem out before it becomes — as it has in other places — an even greater menace.

• There's room for new, tougher sanctions for high-speed driving. Present law makes it an infraction to exceed the speed limit, which on our somewhat limited highways maxes out at 55 mph.

The car involved in Sunday's fatal collision was thought to be traveling about 100 mph — far in excess of the speeds contemplated by our current traffic laws. There is a need for a new category of infraction with much tougher penalties. Let's face it: driving 10 mph over the speed limit is a traffic infraction; driving 100 mph on our highways is a reckless and dangerous crime.

We are wary, however, of the rush to pass laws that would confiscate the vehicle of a driver stopped for racing. This relates to our repugnance at draconian property confiscation in drug cases, in which defendants eventually acquitted of crimes are still in many cases unable to recover their property, even years after the fact.

• There is an obvious need for families to get involved in this speed-crazed faction of young people. Exactly what are parents thinking when they allow their young teens to buy — or even purchase for them — sleek, expensive cars with supercharged engines, reinforced suspensions and mufflers that look like stainless steel stovepipes? Do they imagine they are countenancing no more than a means of getting to school or work and the movies on Saturday night?

It is only reasonable to assume that automobiles built for speed will be driven that way sooner or later. We have never been convinced by the argument that sanctioned off-road raceways are enough to reduce the temptation to put the pedal to the metal on public highways as well.