Cops detail a surge in dangerous driving, debate whether to risk coronavirus spread by jailing violators

The 110 Freeway in Los Angeles in late April 2020.
The 110 Freeway in Los Angeles in late April 2020.

Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

  • COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have resulted in decreased traffic but increased speeding.

  • That’s especially true for speeding over 100 mph, which is a dangerous category to enter.

  • Business Insider spoke to officers from California, Texas, and Georgia about their experiences patrolling during the pandemic.

  • They detailed their big concerns: dangerous driving, questionably road-worthy cars, and the debate of whether to put people in jail with a highly contagious virus going around.

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As we head into what feels like month 3,285 of stay-at-home measures for most of the United States, a few things have become familiar sights in our new, weird reality. Folks in masks. People standing at least six feet apart. Highways, interstates, and sweeping avenues bereft of their usual congestion.

But if it sounds like that last bit would leave law enforcement with less to patrol, it shouldn’t. The roads might not be packed, but that doesn’t mean trouble has died down.

With the gridlock gone, some drivers are taking advantage of the open roadways. Business Insider reported in May that people are driving up to 60% faster across US metropolitan areas.

The California Highway Patrol said in April that there’d been a jump in 87% for violators speeding over 100 mph. In the one-month period between March 19 — when California first implemented its stay-at-home order — and April 19, the agency issued 2,493 statewide speeding citations. That’s nearly double the 1,335 speeding citations issued during the same period last year.

Open roads don’t mean a free-for-all

Overall, there’s been less traffic because of the stay-at-home orders. In fact, there’s been a decrease in most other speeding violations, such as speeding over 55 mph.

“But people who are choosing to speed are doing it a lot faster,” Officer John D. Fransen, a public information officer with the CHP Golden Gate Division, told Business Insider.

“The bottom line is, it’s extremely dangerous to go over 100 mph. Freeways aren’t designed for that. Vehicles aren’t designed for survivability for 100-plus-mph collisions. When you’re going that fast, driver reaction time is lessened. All it takes is one little thing to happen.”

In Georgia, the situation is similar.

“A lot of times, when the traffic is thinner, people treat it as a green flag for racing and take advantage of that,” Lt. Stephanie L. Stallings, the public information director with the Georgia State Patrol, told Business Insider. “Even with the lighter traffic, as speed increases, the probability of being involved in a crash also increases.”

Stallings said the agency pulled numbers from April 3 through April 15 to see how they compared to last year. Georgia’s stay-at-home order was put into effect on April 3.

They found that the number of speeding citations decreased due to there being fewer cars on the roads — just 740 speeding citations this year as compared to the 2,000 from last year. But of those 740 speeding citations, the actual speed had increased. This year, the over-100-mph citations have increased by 60%.

“While there is less traffic on the road, it does not give you free rein to speed,” Stallings said. “You’re putting your life and other motorists’ lives in danger.”

When asked why she thought people were speeding so much suddenly, Stallings indicated that the situation was different from place to place.

“In the metro Atlanta area, we deal with heavy, congested traffic,” Stallings said. “It’s gridlock at all times of the day. So, it’s unusual and a little bit of a surprise when someone goes out and their commute has changed. Their commute time drops, and that doesn’t really happen usually.

“In rural Georgia, they see it as a free-for-all. That’s not the message we want them to get. In the event you are involved in a high-speed crash, the damage it causes significantly increases.”

The Dallas Police Department has noticed an uptick in speeding as well.

“We attribute that to there being fewer vehicles on the roadway,” the department told Business Insider in an emailed statement.

Furthermore, at the end of April, the Dallas Morning News reported on a weekend street-racing incident that left one dead and saw 224 citations issued.

“The street racers’ activities continue in spite of the shelter-in-place order by Dallas County,” the agency told the Dallas Morning News in a statement about the situation. “DPD will continue addressing these issues and encourage our residents to inform law enforcement of any violators.”

The consequences of speeding

Fransen with the CHP Golden Gate Division has pulled over plenty of people going more than 100 mph. 

“There’s no faster way to lose your license than by traveling over 100 mph if you’re found guilty,” Fransen said.

Excessive speeding also puts the pursuing officer at risk, because they have to chase the speeder down and hold them accountable. Sometimes, there are additional moving violations — tailgating, unsafe lane changing — that can turn the speeding citation into reckless driving, which is an arrestable offense.

In Georgia, going more than 100 mph usually lands you a one-way ticket to jail. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that isn’t always the case anymore.

“Jails and sheriff’s departments are being very careful about people who are already there,” Stallings said. “Bringing additional parties could certainly cause a spread of the virus in the jail. Right now, you might not take a trip to jail while traveling over 100 without other factors, like DUI or running from cops.

“But when things lighten up a bit, or when the jails have more capacity, that’s going to change. So, someone who gets a 101-mph ticket this week — four weeks later, things might be different.”

Four weeks later, they might get taken to jail, Stallings said.

“I don’t think people are really realizing the consequences,” Stallings said. “There are heavy fines. There’s jail time.”

The ones speeding aren’t just the serial speed demons

Of course, simple speeding isn’t the only issue when the roads are empty like this. Local racetracks have long been a place touted as a safe way to race — somewhere the crowds of street racers can go to safely show what their cars can do without breaking the law or putting drivers on the road at a risk. Police departments often encourage it as a safer alternative in a controlled environment, like in this program that lets high school students race against police cars at Sonoma Raceway in California.

The National Hot Rod Association, a drag-racing governing body, is also an advocate for the track. In a post titled “Race Smart” on its website, it details the consequences of racing on the road.

“If you’re caught street racing, you could face penalties that include: costly fines, your car being impounded (or taken away permanently and crushed), having your license revoked and/or being arrested,” the post reads. “Even if you are caught just watching an illegal street race, you are subject to stiff penalties for aiding and abetting street racing.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, local tracks such as California’s Irwindale Speedway and Georgia’s Atlanta Dragway have posted notices of postponed or canceled events on their websites. With the temporary shuttering, it was worth asking whether that has played a factor in the speeding upticks.

Neither Irwindale Speedway nor the NHRA responded to Business Insider’s inquiries on that question. Yet, the three members of law enforcement Business Insider spoke to aren’t too quick to pin the speeding on any one demographic or type of person.

Fransen, for example, doesn’t know peoples’ motivation for speeding.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Fransen said. “Some reporters have talked about Cannonball runs as a reason.”

The Cannonball Run Challenge is an unsanctioned speed-record drive where participants attempt to go from New York to Los Angeles in as short an amount of time as possible. In April, the current record was supposedly broken by a team in an Audi A8 that set a time of 26 hours and 38 minutes. 

A 2019 run that clocked in at 27 hours and 25 minutes had an average speed of 103 mph including fuel stops, according to Road & Track, and this most recent one was nearly an hour faster. It’s all highly illegal.

“Especially now in this time of crisis, our medical personnel are already taxed,” Fransen went on. “They don’t need additional trauma coming in because someone decided it was a good idea to go over 100 mph.”

Fransen said the excuses for speeding “run the full gamut,” including people saying they’re “an essential worker” or that “they didn’t realize they’re going 100 mph.” 

Stallings, likewise, didn’t think it had to do with tracks being closed. 

“Racing — that’s a whole crew of people who enjoy that, but it isn’t the majority,” Stallings said. “The people who are taking advantage of our roadways, I wouldn’t put them in a category, I think they’re just on their own. The ones doing it are being careless and reckless.”

The types of cars Fransen’s pulled over are broad, too. They aren’t just sports cars like you’d think — in fact, they’re often the opposite. 

“It’s people in questionably road-worthy cars,” Fransen said. “Vehicles that you wouldn’t think could go 100 mph are going 100 mph.”

Officer Robert Manzano with the CHP Southern Division added that drivers have also been caught speeding on some of Southern California’s famous driving roads, such as Mulholland Drive, Pacific Coast Highway, Angeles Crest Highway, and Glendora Mountain Road. 

Those roads are among favorites for people looking to put a car through its paces, and many do. 

“As a motorist, I have witnessed vehicles traveling at a high rate of speed with total disregard to the motoring public,” Manzano wrote in an email to Business Insider. “As an officer, most motorists violating the maximum speed limit — most 100-plus mph — will indicate they did not realize they were speeding.”

It’s the oldest excuse in the book, folks. If you’re thinking about using it, here’s a professional tip: don’t.

Illegal activities don’t stop during a pandemic

Unfortunately, the pandemic and stay-at-home orders don’t mean everyone’s staying at home.

A crowd of about 450 people gathered in Oakland at the end of March to participate in a sideshow — a gathering of spectators and cars where drivers perform dangerous and illegal stunts. This was during California’s stay-at-home mandate. Local outlet KTVU reported on March 31 that “the crowds … were big and the spectators were not practicing social distancing.”

Per the story:

One sideshow drew dozens of observers near 55th Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, while another happened at 38th Avenue and International Boulevard, according to social media posts and videos.

Video posted by Oakland Side Show Muscle Cars showed people, mostly young men, defying the stay-at-home order, and instead, crowding intersections, and cheering the sideshows.

In one scene, a gray car with three or four people inside, circled around the street around and around, with onlookers snapping photos, drinking beers and cheering. Smoke billowed from the burning tires. 

Oakland police say they arrested three people, cited 14 others and towed 12 cars. 

“Nobody was wearing masks, they were condensed in the middle of a public intersection,” Fransen said. “Insane — the total lack of compassion for community members.”

Thankfully, though, Manzano with the CHP Southern Division hasn’t noticed an uptick in street racing in that area during this time. Manzano said that for the CHP Street Racing Task Force — because, yes, there is such a thing — it’s been “business as usual.”

To drive or not to drive?

The good news for people like us — stuck at home and perhaps feeling a bit stir-crazy — is that it’s totally fine to go on a drive and get a change of scenery. Historically, our cars have always offered us autonomy and independence. 

They can still do that for us now, and even help with social distancing. Drive-in movies, for example, have experienced something of a rebirth in popularity during this time.

“There are no restrictions on driving in Georgia,” Stallings said. “Everybody understands that being at home can drive people mad and you do need to get out. 

“Getting out to enjoy the scenery as you’re driving — that’s a totally different person from the person who’s speeding. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to get out of the house, as long as traffic laws and speed limits are obeyed, people are not driving impaired. It’s the ones that put everybody in danger that are the problem.”

Both Fransen and Manzano echoed the sentiment. 

“If people are driving safely and abiding by the rules, they can go about their business normally,” Fransen said. “There are ways to prevent yourself from going stir-crazy but also having consideration for your community. Going 100 mph is a complete lack of respect for the community.”

“Respect and be courteous to your fellow motorists,” Manzano said. “We are in this together.”

As more and more states begin to lift their stay-at-home mandates, though, drivers might need to readjust back to roads becoming gradually more filled. The “new normal” of empty highways will disappear as more folks get back to driving. 

“We’re going to see a gradual increase in roadway traffic,” Stallings said. “With all the people who have been taking advantage, they need to realize roads are going to get congested again. Driving carelessly and recklessly is even more dangerous.

“Be mindful of posted speed limits. Use proper child seats, don’t drink and drive. Travel safely.”

Read the original article on Business Insider