It was a Saturday night and street racers were out in Atlanta. One pack of drivers roared around the city streets, performing donuts and burnouts. Atlanta police caught up with them in Buckhead, near the intersection of Peachtree and Lenox roads.
They nabbed a fleeing gray Dodge Charger, arresting its driver and impounding the car. But then the scene quickly grew violent. Other drivers threw things at officers, smashing the windows of police cruisers; some shone bright lasers into the officers’ eyes, according to Lt. Justin Strom, auto theft commander of the Atlanta Police Department.
When it was over, 10 people were arrested and charged in the overnight incident on Oct. 15, 2022.
After surging in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, illegal street racing persists in metro Atlanta, fueled, in part, by social media. The Georgia General Assembly is pushing for a new bipartisan bill to stop it. It is one of the dozens of bills supporters are hoping will pass in the legislature’s closing days.
State Senate Bill 10 would increase fines for drag racing, punish anyone facilitating the events and allow judges to limit or suspend the driver’s licenses of offenders.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Emanual Jones, D-Decatur, refers to the measure as “Drag Racing 2.0,” because it would close loopholes in a bill signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp in 2021.
The bill passed the Public Safety Committee in the Senate but was tabled on Crossover Day, a deadline by which legislation is supposed to pass at least one chamber to stay alive. Jones is working with lawmakers to attach it to other legislation and believes it will still make it through this session.
“Had the bill come to the floor, it would have passed overwhelmingly,” Jones said.
The numbers show the size of the problem. The Georgia Department of Public Safety charged 392 people with reckless driving and impounded 1,177 vehicles from April 2021 to March 2022, the latest figures which were available.
A few organizers are creating the problem, car enthusiast Ian Piekutowski said. Groups such as pinkflamingousa and ATLTUNERS invite celebrities, sell merchandise, and post videos on TikTok and other social media.
They have helped create takeovers, events that occupy intersections and parking lots, disrupting traffic and attracting hordes of spectators. Takeovers have created a public safety threat and a nuisance to the city. They have also ruined how people view other aspects of car culture, Piekutowski said.
“Social media destroyed the car scene,” Piekutowski said.
The Atlanta Police Department has had a difficult time dealing with some street racing due to restraints on car chases within city limits. To help combat the problem, APD, DPS and other agencies have collaborated on a crime detail. Street racers also evade authorities by planning multiple locations in advance.
Jones’ bill creates stiffer consequences. It would punish anyone who knowingly facilitates drag racing by fining them at least $250. It would also increase fines for “reckless stunt driving” for first offenders by up to $1,000 and fourth-time offenders by up to $7,500.
Strom would like to see lawmakers focus more on targeting the organizers by seizing the profits they are making through promoting the events.
Piekutowski said Jones’ bill would help but does not get to the root of the problem – the takeover organizers. Organizers should be held accountable because they are the ones influencing this chaotic behavior. Without the organizers, it becomes difficult to draw crowds to events, he said.
Not everyone believes the proposed new penalties will work.
“I’m very skeptical that increasing punishment and adding another crime statute is going to actually effectively deter this from happening,” criminal defense attorney Carlos Rodriguez said.
He believes authorities could interpret and use the provisions in SB10 to charge others who are stuck in traffic and blocking the road, putting innocent drivers at risk of being prosecuted.
But authorities said the changes could help control what has become a danger to the public.
“There’s a myriad of images and video of bystanders being struck, of vehicles wrecking, of people getting injured and hurt,” Roswell Police Department Public Information Officer Timothy Lupo said.
Blocked roads and increased traffic put bystanders and people attending these events in danger, Lupo said.
“There’s plenty of legal, safe options that are available for car enthusiasts to show off the capabilities of their cars, but on our streets, our intersections, and our parking lots, that is not the place for it,” Lupo said.