CBC In Depth
Street Racing: Too fast, too furious
CBC News Online | June 15, 2006

Street racingPeople have died in street races — often those who weren't racing.

From Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones to even the 1978 musical Grease, street racing has been glamorized by a series of Hollywood movies. One recent example, the 2001 film The Fast and the Furious centered on the Los Angeles street-racing subculture, spinning it into a souped-up international phenomenon, complete with action-packed video games for those too young to be behind the wheel.

The reality, however, is much grittier. And it can be lethal.

People have died in street races — often those who weren't racing. Like Vancouver RCMP Const. Jimmy Ng. The 31-year-old was killed instantly in 2002 when a Honda Civic ran a red light in a street race and rammed his car. Or Rob and Lisa Manchester, who also died in a suspected street-racing incident on May 27, 2006, just north of Toronto. They left behind a seven-year-old daughter, Katie. The Manchesters had been out celebrating their 17th wedding anniversary.

There are no official Canadian statistics on street-racing or related deaths. But 33 people in Ontario have been killed due to street racing, according to Project E.R.A.S.E., which stands for Eliminate Racing Activities on Streets Everywhere. The Ontario-based program is a joint project involving 15 police departments and government ministries in Ontario. There is no national equivalent, but the problem is Canada-wide, said program coordinator, Const. Kent Taylor of the Ontario Provincial Police. And, "the death toll is rising."

'Not all crazy guys'

But Graham Chan, a former street racer in Richmond, B.C., argues, "We're not all crazy guys driving around the street trying to hurt people." In a 2002 CBC TV report, he said, "It's more just about the music, the cars, the styles, the girls. All that. What brings us together is the subculture." He added there are different types of street racers. "We're very safe, " he said. "Usually we have someone at the other end with walkie-talkies, making sure they can see further ahead than we can."

But when street racing goes wrong, it can have devastating consequences, said Taylor. "I have now come into contact with people who have lost loved ones, and you just hear how it impacts their lives. Street racing is not a joke and not a fun little hobby. You're risking lives. If you want to risk your own life, go parachute. Don't race on the street, taking other people's lives for your fun."

There are three types of street races, according to Taylor:

  • The impromptu race. It happens spontaneously when drivers pull up beside each other at a stop sign, or stoplight. One driver will rev up his engine, or look at the other to signal the race is on. It doesn't necessarily involve a sports car, Taylor said, it could even involve a couple of minivans.
  • The organized race. It is planned ahead of time, and a road is closed off for the race, usually in a remote location and late at night or early morning, with several spectators.
  • "Hat racing." Several racers compete for sums of money, or "pinks", the pink papers that claim ownership of their car. The first driver to the set destination gets the prize, and the glory. The race isn't confined to a certain road and they're often racing for long distances, such as from city to city, Taylor said. "For these people, especially if they're racing for 'pinks', there's significant risk involved. They want to win, and it's no holds barred. They have no regard for other people on the roads."

What's an offence

At this point, there is no specific law in Canada that targets street racing. Of course, there are penalties for speeding, or reckless driving. And, if someone is killed or injured, four offences under the Criminal Code could apply:

  • Criminal negligence causing death.
  • Dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death.
  • Criminal negligence causing bodily harm.
  • Dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing bodily harm.

If convicted of the most serious charge, criminal negligence causing death, racers can face life in prison. But, Taylor said that almost never happens. "To my knowledge, there isn't (a convicted street racer) who has served more than five months in jail," he said. In November 2000, street racers in Vancouver killed 51-year-old Irene Thorpe, a pedestrian, and were convicted of criminal negligence causing death The two teens involved, Sukvir Singh Khosa and Bahadur Singh Bhalru, were given conditional sentences of two years less a day and placed under house arrest — a sentence that provoked outrage in most of the country. That outrage still didn't change the penalties much. At a news conference shortly after his son Jimmy was killed in 2002, Chris Ng, father of the slain Vancouver RCMP officer, said, "We want the judicial system to put a little heavier penalty, to do something about this criminal driving behaviour."

Harper's plan

On June 15, 2006, the Conservative government introduced a bill in the House of Commons making street racing a specific criminal offence under the Criminal Code of Canada. Offenders would be hit with tougher sentences and have their driving privileges revoked — for progressively longer periods with each offence.

The proposed punishments are as follows:

Offence Current punishment Proposed punishment with street racing
Dangerous driving (no bodily harm or death)Summary Conviction or, on indictment imprisonment up to 5 years maximumSummary Conviction or, on indictment imprisonment up to 5 years maximum
Dangerous Driving causing Bodily HarmUp to 10 years maximum imprisonmentUp to 14 years maximum imprisonment
Dangerous Driving causing DeathUp to 14 years maximum imprisonmentUp to lifetime maximum imprisonment
Criminal Negligence causing Bodily HarmUp to 10 years maximum imprisonment Up to 14 years maximum imprisonment
Criminal Negligence causing DeathUp to lifetime maximum imprisonmentUp to lifetime maximum imprisonment

Offence Proposed Driving Prohibitions
First street racing convictionFirst street racing convictionSubsequent street racing conviction
Dangerous Driving (no bodily harm or death)1 year minimum up to 3 years maximum2 years minimum up to 5 years maximum3 years minimum up to lifetime maximum
Dangerous Driving causing Bodily Harm1 year minimum up to 10 years maximum 2 years minimum up to 10 years maximum 3 years minimum up to lifetime maximum
Dangerous Driving causing Death 1 year minimum up to 10 years maximum *Lifetime minimum *Lifetime minimum
Criminal Negligence causing Bodily Harm 1 year minimum up to 10 years maximum 2 years minimum up to 10 years maximum 3 years minimum up to lifetime maximum
Criminal Negligence causing Death 1 year minimum up to lifetime maximum *Lifetime minimum *Lifetime minimum
*The lifetime minimum driving prohibition would apply if an offender has three or more convictions where someone was injured or killed as a result of street racing, and at least one of these offences caused a death.

Taylor said he likes the new legislation, in principle, but there could be difficulties applying it. For example, he notes that, even with speeding involved, car crashes can be hard to peg directly to a street race. Still, "Having something in the Criminal Code, as long as it's well defined, would be good," he said.

In the U.S., there is street racing criminal legislation already in place, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report on street racing.

In California, a conviction for a "speed contest" — defined as a motor vehicle racing against another vehicle, or against time — slaps racers with a $1,000 US fine or up to 90 days in jail, or both. As well, if convicted of engaging in a speed contest, reckless driving, or screeching their tires by flooring the gas pedal, an offender's licence can be suspended for six months, and his or her car can be impounded for up to 30 days. Offenders get their cars back after paying $1,500 US. In Freemont, California, traffic has been banned between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. on streets known to be popular for racing. And police are allowed to impound cars of both street-race drivers and spectators.

Texas established harsher penalties in 2003, according to the report. Racers face up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine for both drivers and passengers. For an intoxicated driver, the fine is $4,000 and jail time a year behind bars. Spectators can be fined up to $500 as well. In Nevada, street racers face similar fines and jail sentences.

In Vancouver, medians and curbs were put up to narrow roads that were being used for drag racing. Police also had a zero-tolerance policy targeting cars that are modified to go faster, even if drivers weren't caught speeding down the strip.

In Ontario, Taylor said, police target actual street racers, because customized car owners aren't necessarily racers. But he said he hopes to team up with car enthusiasts who are part of the subculture to help curb street racing activity. He said E.R.A.S.E.'s plan is to change the image of street racing.

"We're trying to engage as much of the community as we can, so we can make it known that street racing isn't cool, not socially acceptable," he said. "I'm very concerned that right now there's an emerging youth culture that sees racing as kind of cool and anti-establishment."

Taylor said street racing may never be eliminated, but he hopes one day it will be frowned upon as severely as drunk driving is now.

"With impaired driving, it used to be acceptable," he said. "It was like, 'Yuk, Yuk, I beat the cops on that one!' But with the efforts of police and the community, they turned it around to where it's totally unacceptable to be charged with drunk driving. You don't want neighbours knowing you were charged with it. We hope we will get street racing to be viewed like that."

Recent street-racing incidents:

May 27, 2006:
Rob and Lisa Manchester, of Toronto, Ont., were killed instantly in a suspected street-racing incident. They were hit by one of two vehicles racing up Yonge St. in Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto.
» CBC STORY: Two dead, one injured in suspected street-racing incident

May 14, 2006:
In Burnaby, B.C., one man died and three were taken to hospital after a high-speed head-on crash. A red sports car and a black Dodge Viper were racing up Lougheed Highway at about 130 km/h.
» CBC STORY: Coquitlam man dies in head-on crash

Jan. 28, 2006:
Three people were killed and one taken to hospital in serious condition after a black BMW spun out of control on a rain-slicked Vancouver highway. A woman, who was not badly hurt, was hit by the BMW and rammed into a pole.
» CBC STORY: Vancouver crash was street race: police

Jan. 24, 2006:
Toronto taxi driver Tahir Khan died after a Mercedes-Benz slammed his cab and smashed it into a light pole. Two cars were racing in posh Toronto neighbourhood. A copy of the street-racing video game Need for Speed was found in one of the cars.
» CBC STORY: Memorial held for cab driver killed in alleged street race


VIEWPOINT: Dangerous offender FAQ

A 2002 CBC-TV report on Street Racing by Natalie Clancy
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Street racing report by U.S. Department of Justice

Project E.R.A.S.E. — Eliminate Racing Activities on Streets Everywhere
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