Two decades ago, much of Loudoun’s open space was comprised of woods and fields, and all of the county’s youngest drivers weren’t born. Today, many of those woods and fields are smooth, multi-lane roads that drivers with newly issued licenses are using to determine who has the fastest car and reaction time.
During a recent county board meeting, Sheriff Mike Chapman briefed supervisors on the increase of illegal street racing in Loudoun. Chapman said his office noticed an uptick in street racing in the past year, possibly correlating with people being cooped up inside amid the pandemic.
According to Maj. Easton McDonald, deputies made 172 traffic stops related to street racing and impounded several cars between early November and April 30.
“It’s been an ongoing issue, it hasn’t stopped,” McDonald said. “This is absolutely new.”
The street racers, whom McDonald said range in age from high schoolers to mid-20s and are mostly male, have been stopped for traveling nearly double the speed limit in some instances, like 94 mph in a 55-mph zone.
McDonald said they’re racing along multi-lane highways and single-lane roads predominantly in Sterling, Ashburn, Broadlands and Brambleton. And they’re risking the safety of more than themselves.
“They’re definitely endangering other people,” McDonald said, noting that there have been some crashes, but nothing serious yet.
McDonald said the races sometimes are spontaneous, such as two cars racing through an intersection when the traffic light turns green. But other times, the races are planned—and sometimes on a large scale.
He said regional racing clubs use social media to organize meetups at designated spots. Those meetups, he said, range in size anywhere from 20 cars to hundreds of them.
“They’re very inclusive,” McDonald said about the clubs. “They’re able to spread the information very quickly.”
In the past seven months, the Sheriff’s Office has assembled operations targeted at identifying those clubs and their meetup locations, and has been somewhat successful at catching them.
From early November to April 30, deputies specifically involved in those anti-street racing operations issued 572 citations and 98 warnings. And on one May Friday night alone, deputies issued 22 street racing-related citations.
“We’ve been very fortunate to identify some frequently visited locations,” McDonald said.
Most of those operations take place in the evenings and nights when the weather is calm—the type of weather suitable for an evening street race.
McDonald said that on the nights deputies lack intelligence on the meetups, at least one or two units patrol the most heavily raced areas of the county, like Brambleton.
Community Responses to Street Racing
Brambleton Community Association General Manager Rick Stoneconfirmed that illegal street racing has been a problem recently, as the HOA has fielded concerns from residents regarding street racing in the past six months. Stone said street racers are frequently racing in the evenings and nights on the community’s collector roads, includingNorthstar Boulevard or Belmont Ridge Road.
But, Stone said, the Sheriff’s Office’s response to the complaints has helped to lower the number of such incidents.
Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87), a Brambleton resident, said he hasn’t witnessed blatant street racing in the community but has heard loud cars in the distance that could have been racing.
Street racing concerns seem to be even worse in Sterling.
On the Sterling Park Neighborhood Exchange Facebook group, one resident wrote on April 9 that Davis Drive “is currently a racetrack.” Also in April, a resident posted that Shaw Road and Davis Drive have been drag racing hotspots in the past year.
Davis and Shaw are particular hotspots for street racing because drivers frequently use them to cut through the community to get from Old Ox Road to Church Road and vice versa.
And on Aug. 19 last year, one resident posted that she lives on a busy street in Sterling Park where the increasing number of “very loud cars going up and down the street” had begun to wake her up at “all hours of the night.”
Sterling Foundation Chairwoman Cheryl Villalobos said she has also noticed an increase in the frequency of engine revving in the area.
“That’s been so annoying,” she said. “If the cicadas weren’t enough, that’s worse.”
Villalobos said there’s also speeding on Sterling Boulevard. She said that when she and other community volunteers work to pick up litter along the road, cars sometimes speed past well over the posted 35 mph speed limit.
“You notice when someone is going fast,” she said.
In the other communities where the Sheriff’s Office is reporting many occurrences of street racing, residents either aren’t noticing the issue or aren’t reporting it.
The general managers of the Broadlands Association, Ashburn Farm Association, Ashburn Village Community Association, South Riding, Potomac Station Community Association, CountrySide, and Cascades Community Association all said they haven’t heard any reports of illegal street racing issues in their neighborhoods.
Police Can No Longer Cite Drivers for Loud Cars
As for the types of cars the street racers are driving, they’re often like what’s seen in the “Fast & Furious” movie franchise: smaller imports that can more readily be modified for faster speeds and louder noise.
Many racers, and even drivers who aren’t guilty of illegally racing through the county’s streets, often modify their cars to increase the level of sound coming from their exhaust pipes, sometimes by installing aftermarket mufflers and other times by completely removing their mufflers or catalytic converters.
But while in the past deputies could pull drivers over for what they might feel is a louder-than-allowed sound coming from a car, as of March 1 they are no longer legally allowed to do that. Now, they have to wait until they see those drivers explicitly disobeying the rules of the road and endangering the lives of others.
In November, the General Assembly passed legislation establishing that law enforcement officers are prohibited from legally stopping drivers for driving cars with exhaust systems that allow excessive or unusual levels of noise, with license plates or brake lights out, with defective and unsafe equipment, with windows tinted more than what’s allowed in Virginia, or with objects suspended within the vehicle. Legislators passed that legislation, along party lines, with the intent of cutting back on racial profiling in traffic stops.
But the new law makes it impossible for deputies to pull drivers over for operating vehicles with illegal features. Instead, deputies are now tasked with keeping an even keener eye open to illegal street racing.
“We police the behavior,” McDonald said.
All three of Loudoun’s Democratic state senators and all six of its Democratic delegates voted in favor of that legislation.
Subramanyam said he supported the measures because of the sometimes “frivolous traffic stops” for offenses like loud exhaust systems and items hanging from rearview mirrors that have led to criminal charges that might not have been warranted. He said the legislation was one of many pieces of legislation introduced to address the “systemic problem” with police profiling drivers in traffic stops.
But, he said, if it’s found that the new law is related to an uptick in illegal street racing, he would be amenable to working with his colleagues in Richmond to tweak the law in future General Assembly sessions.
“Even the best legislation can have unintended consequences,” he said. “… I’m open to fixing problems in the community.”
Still, Subramanyam noted that having a modified car doesn’t mean a driver will street race. He said he has seen drivers without upgrades on their cars speeding at more than 80 mph along Loudoun County Parkway, where the speed limit is 45 mph in most areas.
Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-33) said her constituents have expressed concern about the new law affecting deputies’ abilities to pull over and charge potential street racers before they endanger lives. She said education on the dangers and penalties for street racing might be part of the solution.
Boysko said she has pledged to work with stakeholders to find “a reasonable solution” to the issue.
Moving into the summer months and beyond, the Sheriff’s Office is working to put as many deputies on the lookout for illegal street racing as possible.
“We become a nuisance [for the street racers],” McDonald said. “We’re just not making it pleasant for those individuals.”