Teen Drag Racing

Bradley Mullins and David Phillips revved up their engines after stopping at a traffic light in Johnson City, Tennessee. Mullins, age 19, was speeding at 130 mph when his black Mustang crashed into a Honda CPV driven by a high school homecoming queen and her friend. One girl died and the other suffered burns over 30% of her body. Drag racers Mullins and Phillips were convicted of reckless homicide.

Jeremy Swanson, age 16, was racing his Honda Civic against a car driven by his friend, Michael Gurtovoy, in Santa Rosa, California. When Jeremy failed to negotiate a turn at over 100 mph, he smashed his car into a tree, breaking the car in two and killing himself immediately. Michael served a year in prison for manslaughter.

American teenagers like speed and they like to race their cars. Drag racing is universal: teens in rural and urban areas do it. Some races happen spontaneously; others are planned events with spectators. Most happen late at night. When a crash occurs, everyone disappears, making it impossible to determine if the crash was a result of a drag race.

Drag racing began when people first started driving in the 1920s – the term comes from racing “the main drag” of a town. By the 1930s, there were car-racing clubs centered near the dry lakes of California, where most drag races occurred. The sport really became popular in the early 1950s, when millions of American men returned home from World War II as skilled mechanics who built the first “hot rods.” Teenagers, inspired by movies like “Rebel Without A Cause,” began to race cars on the street for fun and excitement, and this holds true today.

“They see stunts in movies and say, ‘Wow! I can do that with my car,’” said Max Hartley, of the California Highway Patrol. “They don’t realize that these are movie sets with stunt drivers on closed streets, and that we won’t tolerate it.”

Teenagers have an accident rate that is four times that of adults. However, more are surviving accidents because of successful campaigns for seat belts and against drunk driving, and because more states have passed “graduated driver’s licensing,” which often restricts teen driving to daytime. However, it is hard to control teenage speeders. About 45% of teen driving fatalities involve speeding, and a recent insurance survey attributes 21% of auto crashes to drag racing.

It is difficult for police to stop drag racers because they race at night in unpopulated areas with little police presence. Daytime officers will sometimes alert night patrols to car skids and other evidence of drag racing, so the night police can better monitor certain areas.

Some jurisdictions like New York are increasing the penalties against drag racing, raising it from a misdemeanor to a felony and requiring parents to come to court with their teens. Other jurisdictions are holding legal races, such as “Beat the Heat” races in California, which pit teen drivers against police cars. The National Hot Rod Association operates a “Street Legal” program in which drivers race family cars.

If you suspect your teen is drag racing, there are things you can do. Do not allow your teen to drive at night. Consider buying a “Drive Cam,” a device that fits on your child’s rear view mirror. If your child accelerates suddenly, the device sends you a computer alert. It also films everything that happens when the car is moving. Another device is a “key fob,” which keeps track of how many miles your child drives each time he takes out the car, and has a foolproof mechanism that disallows cheating. If your teen is determined to be “fast and furious,” you might consider legal racing.