OPINION: Curbing the Scourge of Illegal Street Racing

Pandemic-emptied roads have proved irresistible to reckless drivers. The FURIOUS Act would enable speed cameras to hold them accountable.

Skid marks left after drag racing in Bay Ridge. Photo: Justin Brannan.
Skid marks left after drag racing in Bay Ridge. Photo: Justin Brannan.

When traffic on city streets fell to historic lows because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some thrill-seekers began taking advantage of our empty roads by treating them like a NASCAR speedway.

Brad Hoylman
Brad Hoylman

New Yorkers across the city have been filing complaints about the huge surge of illegal racing, which puts motorists, pedestrians and cyclists in peril and keeps locals awake at all hours of the night with revving engines, screeching tires and squealing brakes.

The data bear this out. A total of 1,057 complaints were made to 311 about drag racing between March 20 and Sept. 10, 2020 – nearly five times the 239 calls made during the same period in 2019. 

Even though traffic has risen as the city slowly returns to some semblance of normalcy, complaints continue to pour in. In August alone, 214 complaints were made — compared to just 73 in August, 2019. 

According to a recent report from Transportation Alternatives, not only has the number of speeding tickets grown by 67 percent since the pandemic started, 76 motorists have been killed so far in 2020, compared to 68 in all of 2019.

In order to combat this disturbing trend, this week I introduced legislation with Assembly Member Nily Rozic called the Fighting Underground Racing In Our Streets (FURIOUS) Act, which would give New York City the ability to catch on camera drag racers and other reckless drivers who have been gathering overnight, thereby making it easier to enforce state laws against street racing.

Thunder Road: Third Avenue (looking north from 61st Street), a straight shot for speeding vehicles, has seen a lot of illegal drag racing since the start of the pandemic. Photo: Liam Jeffries
Thunder Road: Third Avenue (looking north from 61st Street), a straight shot for speeding vehicles, has attracted illegal drag racers during the pandemic. Photo: Liam Jeffries

State law now allows the city to operate its system of automated speed cameras only on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., even though many illegal drag races take place overnight and on weekends. Our bill would permit the cameras to be operated at any time — day or night — in areas designated through local public hearings as hot spots of illegal street racing.   

Our bill would address a 1964 court ruling that allows street racers to evade New York’s law prohibiting “speed contests and races” if they didn’t plan a race course in advance.  It would clarify state law in order to ensure that drivers engaging in speed contests and races are held accountable for violating the law, regardless of whether they pre-planned a race course.

The bill isn’t a panacea for safe streets. We still must continue to fight for protected bike lanes, busways, funding for mass transit, and more open streets. But our legislation is a step toward holding reckless drivers accountable by adding to the tools available to the city to crack down on street racing.

New Yorkers have enough problems to deal with during the pandemic. Let’s take illegal street racing off the list. 

Brad Hoylman represents the 27th District in the State Senate, including Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Columbus Circle, Times Square, the Upper West Side, the East Village, Midtown East, and the Lower East Side.