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For street racers, loyalty optional

By Cathy Frye

This article was published January 23, 2007 at 6:23 p.m.

In the world of street racing, loyalty extends only to the living, police officers and prosecutors say.

Friends don't stick around for accidents. And they don't talk afterward, much to the frustration of law enforcement officers and prosecutors across the nation.

Take, for example, the case of 14-year-old Guillermo Estrada of Richmond, Calif., whose friends took off after he was hit by a sedan speeding back to the starting line after a race.

A newspaper editor, Stephen Buel, of the East Bay Express, happened to be at the Port of Oakland that night, working on a story about a recent string of traffic fatalities, all attributed to street racing.

As spectators fled, Buel begged someone to call 911. By the time an ambulance arrived,Buel was the only person left. He wrote a first-person account of that night, published in July 2006, describing how he revealed 10 months later to Guillermo - who survived - that only a stranger had stayed to help him.

"Given what happened," Buel wrote, "it's hard for either of us to escape the sad conclusion that some people value a fast car more than a human life." (Buel is a former Arkansas Democrat reporter who went on to found Spectrum Weekly, an alternative Little Rock Rock newspaper.)

Most police departments don't keep track of accidents involving street racing, although a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Justice recommends that law enforcement agencies start doing so.

But run a Google search using "street racing" and "deaths," and dozens of descriptions of these wrecks turn up. Most of the victimsare teenagers. Some are elderly drivers who drove up on a race and inadvertently got in the way.

Or there's 6-year-old Jaylen Ellis of Gary, Ind., who died when a racing Chevrolet Caprice plowed into a crowd of spectators. Three men also were killed.

In that case, the driver lost control when an 84-year-old man turned onto the road in front of him.

The second racer, who was driving a Mustang, fled the scene.

Some states and cities have enacted special laws - seizing and selling cars, crushing cars, closing streets or even fining the spectators. (Take away the crowd, lawmakers say, and street racers lose much of the thrill.)

In California, the governor signed a law in September that toughens the penalties for those who injure or kill people while racing. Prosecutors can now chargethose drivers with a felony.

Canada's Conservative government amended its federal law this month to make street racing an aggravating factor for sentencing in a variety of offenses, which can significantly lengthen prison terms of those who injure or kill someone while racing. Lifetime driving bans also will be imposed.

The U.S. Department of Justice has recommended other solutions as well, including the creation of legal tracks with safety requirements and supervision. Some police officers remain skeptical of that proposal, arguing that much of the thrill in street racing comes from the illegality. Others, however, believe such public tracks would take a good number of racers off the street.

No one was ever charged in the accident that injured Guillermo.

"There were 40 witnesses to this accident," Buel said, "and no one ever came forward."

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