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Exhibition driving

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Posted on: July 10, 2024

By JOE MURCHISON

Two Laurel public officials recently played key roles in securing passage of a new state law designed to keep our streets safer.

State Del. Mary Lehman (District 21) was principal House sponsor of the Street Racing and Driving Exhibition bill that defines and penalizes a type of dangerous driving. The practice involves drivers and large crowds of spectators gathering at parking lots or major intersections where drivers perform doughnuts and burnouts, sometimes skidding in circles at high rates of speed, often close to spectators and sometimes with passengers hanging out of windows or even clinging to the roof. 

Laurel police Chief Russ Hamill was the principal law-enforcement official testifying in favor of the law in both the House and Senate. He is currently co-chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Police Chief Committee and is past president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association.

“It’s a problem all across the country,” Hamill said, noting that these types of hazardous driving activities have occurred locally at such locations as Route 1 and Contee Road, on Sweitzer Lane and even on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The events, which are routinely advertised on social media, are sometimes called “takeovers,” he said, as the drivers and crowds block roads or intersections till they have finished their stunts. 

In 2023, 139 major exhibition driving events were reported across Maryland, Hamill said, adding, “It’s a miracle that people aren’t killed and injured at these events.”

In fact, on May 19 two young men were shot and one died during an exhibition driving meetup at a District Heights parking lot. Police charged a 22-year-old from Stafford, Va., with murder.

Lehman said the new law, which went into effect June 1, defines exhibition driving, which is categorized separately from racing, and requires anyone charged to appear in court. Those found guilty can be assessed a fine of up to $1,000, given eight to 12 points on their license, and spend up to a year in jail. Lehman noted that the points are sufficient to have a driver’s license suspended or even revoked. The law also raises penalties on racing. 

Lehman said she hopes that part of the bill might reduce the number of complaints she receives from West Laurel residents who live near Route 198 and are frequently subjected to the roar of cars racing up and down the highway at night.

Both Hamill and Lehman said they had been informed that organizers of the exhibition driving events may offer prize money to participants. Hamill said he had heard of amounts up to $50,000 per event, with the organizers apparently recouping their investment through social media exposure. Lehman said a West Laurel neighbor had told her that his son had won $8,000, though that was in a racing rather than exhibition-driving event. 

Lehman said she first became aware of exhibition driving in 2020 when Ocean City officials approached the House Environment and Transportation Committee, on which she sits. The officials were frantically seeking a way to tamp down a rash of events there, she said. “Cars were taking over Ocean [i.e., Coastal] Highway and doing crazy things.” 

At the time, the General Assembly responded by passing a bill to penalize the activity, but it only applied to Worcester County. Lehman noted that the law curbed the activity almost immediately. However, a statewide measure that passed the assembly in 2022 was vetoed by then-Gov. Larry Hogan after Ocean City officials argued it might weaken their Worcester County law, she said.

The problem “really grew exponentially during the pandemic,” Lehman said. “Suddenly there were fewer cars on the road, and people were bored and restless and thought this would be fun.”

“This is not clean fun,” she said.

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