By Dave Rogers
---- — NEWBURY — Motorists tempted to challenge other drivers to high-speed races across area highways will have more company this summer as state police officials say they will increase their patrols to clamp down hard on the potentially deadly activity.
State police are also enlisting Beacon Hill lawmakers and the Essex County District Attorney’s office to lobby for harsher penalties related to both spontaneous drag racing and, even more troubling, organized racing.
Spontaneous racing involves motorists pulling up to other drivers to see if the other party is willing.
If both motorists agree, the two begin traveling down the highway at terrifying speeds, jerking around slower vehicles until the race is over. Unsuspecting motorists are often caught fully unprepared for the sight of two cars barreling toward them, opening the door to a potentially deadly collision.
In a coordinated race, miles of highway and exits that feed traffic into the roads are sometimes blocked off by motorists employing a rolling roadblock, likely using the same technique employed by state troopers on a regular basis. Passengers in these cars, called blockers, are often armed with video cameras to document the races. Others, known as spotters, are on the lookout for police cruisers and alert each other via cellphones.
The racers, typically driving modified low-riding cars with tinted windows and altered exhaust systems, then rev their engines and blast down the road as fast as they can for a mile or so. The races are often uploaded online and are used to advance the street culture of underground racing made popular in the “Fast and Furious” movie franchise.
“That doesn’t help,” Newbury barracks commander Lt. Paul Zipper said regarding the movie series, which recently released its fifth sequel in theaters across the country.
Another factor to consider, Zipper said, is the New Hampshire Dragway in Epping, N.H., off Route 125. Many highway races can trace their origins to motorists traveling to and from the popular venue that first opened its doors in 1966. Add to the availability of specialized high-performance gasoline, also known as racing fuel, at the dragway and at Haffner’s, a chain of gas stations in Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, Methuen and other Massachusetts locations and New Hampshire, and there are plenty of places for racers to fuel up.
Zipper and Newbury barracks court officer Michael Provost said the department is taking a zero-tolerance policy toward racing and are asking motorists to report any racing activity. Motorists should not engage racers in any way and should contact the state police immediately, they said.
Already, efforts by state police have snagged a handful of racers as troopers recently issued summonses and made arrests in connection with both types of racing.
Last week, police were also able to make at least a dent against Merrimack Valley racers, issuing charges against three motorists. Mohamud A. Hassan, 25, 169 Bartlett St., Lewiston, Maine, was arrested at 1 a.m. and charged with reckless operation of a motor vehicle, racing a motor vehicle, operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license and speeding (in excess of 100 mph).
Sgt. Bruce O’Rourke made the arrest on Interstate 495 in Haverhill after traveling at high speeds to break up what appeared to be a spontaneous race between a Chevy Camaro and a Saab 9-3.
Trooper Kevin O’Neill was able to bust another likely spontaneous race when he caught up with the owners of two Porsches, a Boxster and a Carrera traveling on Interstate 95 south in Topsfield.
Fethi Ali Kamisli, 21, 8 Museum Way, No. 2406, Cambridge, and Nathan J. Owens, 28, 15A Tremont St., Newburyport, were issued summonses at 6:03 p.m. on charges of negligent operation of a motor vehicle, racing a motor vehicle, marked lanes and speeding.
And late last month, three Lawrence residents, two men and a woman, were charged with racing after state police Sgt. Frank Puopolo, working a detail, caught up with three suspects in Haverhill. Puopolo said it appears the trio was engaged in a spontaneous race that began on Interstate 495 in Merrimac and went on for miles before he pulled them over in Haverhill. The motorists were driving a Honda SUV, a Honda sedan and an Acura SUV, according to Puopolo.
State Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, met with Zipper last week to discuss the barracks’ plans to combat drag racing as well as other initiatives scheduled for this summer.
The first-term senator said she was debriefed on the barracks’ racing prevention methods and how the current racing laws fall short in protecting other motorists. She said it’s important for the county to give state police the necessary tools to combat what she called “a troubling activity.”
O’Connor Ives said she will be sharing her information with Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, and added that it could take a legislative solution to ensure public safety on the roads, as the current system seems to have few deterrents. She also said she would broach the subject with her peers inside the Statehouse, hoping to find allies in her push to strengthen legislation.
“It’s really worrisome if folks are blocking exits and slowing down traffic and lanes in a synchronized way. It’s very dangerous,” O’Connor Ives said. “I want to give them the tools they need and also update the other legislators who might not have it on their radars.”
The current maximum penalty for drag racing in the state is 2 1/2 years in jail, but Zipper said he’d like to see prosecutors and police work together to come up with additional penalties and strategies to further deter the dangerous activity.