Can Santa Ana Solve Its Deadly Street Racing Plight?

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Tire marks leading out of a plaza near Wilshire Square and Madison Park in Santa Ana. Inside the plaza are more winding tire marks left after a "sideshow" stunt.

For years, Santa Ana residents have been calling on officials to address the danger of their city’s largest avenues, like Bristol St., which have increasingly turned into urban race tracks.

Indeed, just this past July, Santa Ana City Councilman Phil Bacerra warned his colleagues publicly about the street racing dangers facing residents.

“This is literally killing people,” said Councilman Phil Bacerra at a July 7 council meeting, voicing a need to find ways to make it physically difficult to street race in the city. “There are people dying because we’re not taking action.”

A few weeks later, Bacerra’s warnings would turn into reality as a high-speed race between a couple of young adults in the city ended in a fiery wreck that knocked down wires on Santa Clara Ave and claimed the life of longtime Orange County Register editor Gene Harbrecht, whose truck was hit by a BMW involved in the race.

Harbrecht was 67 years old, remembered by his own paper as a senior news leader, “a newsman to his core” who loved sports, country music, and Gene Autry.

Two men in their 20s, suspected of participating in the illegal, July 30 race, have since been arrested and charged by county prosecutors.

Santa Ana’s street racing problem is a multifaceted one, say city officials and local transportation experts — one spanning issues around car culture, urban planning bureaucracy, and a lack of adequate outlets for the city’s young people.

It’s especially amplified by a novel coronavirus pandemic and public health orders that have largely kept people cooped up at home, and, in turn, increased the perception that fewer cars will stand in a racer’s way on the streets.

But it’s also an issue that invites creativity among policymakers for brainstorming solutions, like reconfiguring the streets or closing some down for controlled racing, even turning it into a community event with street vendors and music — an idea that officials like Councilman David Penaloza mulled over in a phone interview after the July 30 accident.

Over the last five years, the city has seen four fatal street racing accidents, according to Santa Ana Police Dept. spokesman Anthony Bertagna. From the start of last year, police also conducted a total 19 street racing enforcement operations.

Officials at the July 7 meeting noted street racing is also a problem in other cities, though the frequency of incidents in Santa Ana prompted that evening’s discussion.

No substantive action was taken during the session — only general direction by the council for city staff to look into solutions. City spokesman Paul Eakins didn’t have an answer as of Monday, Aug. 10 as to what staff were planning to present to officials at one of the council’s future meetings.

At the meeting, Bacerra said one of the reasons why Santa Ana’s so attractive to street racers is the fact that “you have a lot of streets that have long distances between street lights.”

“When you think of drag racing — the actual racing — the track is a quarter mile length,” said Bacerra, who then listed off sections of MacArthur Blvd and Mcfadden Ave where roads went as much as half a mile between stop lights.

“Essentially, they’re race tracks,” said Peter Garcia, a Santa Ana native and urban planning expert who specializes in transportation policy and mobility in communities of color.

And with fewer cars on the streets, Mayor Miguel Pulido pointed out at the July 7 meeting, means more appetite for driving fast. 

Garcia and Penaloza also pointed out the prominence of car culture in Santa Ana, known for its car clubs and cruising. Penaloza over the phone recounted the time he once owned a Dodge Challenger, left his car, and came back to a note on it inviting him to a club of Challenger owners, all the way from 1970s models to current.

Yet streetside car showoff events and cruising — albeit disruptive to traffic at times — usually aren’t deadly. 

Street racing, Penaloza noted, is car culture’s more dangerous offshoot — and “it’s not going away anytime soon. We have films that glorify it — we’re on like, what, the 15th Fast and Furious movie now? Kids see that and they want to do that.”

One idea to curb the problem is to offer people opportunities to street race in controlled environments, he said.

“Conversations came up initially on how do we activate spots in the city where you have a history of car cultures … model shops on south Main St. … why don’t we close down streets from time to time for races or to give the lowriders a chance to show off their gear and give the beefed up Subarus a chance to do their donuts?” he said.

He added: “If we did that in a way where it’s safe, there’s a chance it decreases the need or desire to do it at random,” he said.

Penaloza said he’s even observed support for the idea by homeowners associations. “They’re seeing these cars plow down their streets, going, ‘hey why don’t we close down numerous streets every easter Sunday, why don’t we make it a community thing?’”

It’s a thing in cities like Fontana, where the Auto Club Speedway offers events for people to bring their cars in and legally race in the daytime.

Short and Long Term Solutions — and Barriers

Bacerra during his July 7 remarks looked back to a three-day stretch where police once conducted a street racing enforcement operation at the peak of rush hour, resulting in about a dozen citations for people speeding around 70 miles-per-hour on a road with a 40 miles-per-hour speed limit. 

Penaloza said beefed up enforcement wouldn’t just be sending out more patrol officers, but motorbike cops as well. 

“If people know there’s motor officer bikes, people are gonna slow down and not race,” he said.

Garcia voiced concern over using street racing enforcement to enhance policing in a predominantly non-white city, at a time where policing itself has been challenged, protested and scrutinized by communities of color and civil rights groups at unprecedented levels — locally and nationally — over the past few months. 

Indeed, Bacerra at the July 7 meeting and Penaloza over the phone said enforcement isn’t the only solution.

Bacerra said more long term solutions would be to involve the city’s Public Works department to reconfigure the streets and “make it physically difficult to do racing.” One example he gave at the meeting was traffic synchronization. 

Penaloza over the phone said one idea would be to implement speed bumps or even pursue ways of narrowing streets. 

But Garcia said attempts to address vehicle and pedestrian safety in those roads — such as lane reductions, or protected bike lanes — could face barriers in Orange County’s decades-old, cornerstone transportation policy document, the Master Plan of Arterial Highways (MPAH), which sets the standards for and enforces cities’ compliance with measurement requirements for roadways that encourage high speeds.

Those wide, high vehicle capacity roadways are also known as arterials. One such arterial is Bristol St. in Santa Ana, which street racers on July 30 careened along before the fatal wreck on Santa Clara Ave.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Cars at the corner of Bristol St. and Edinger Ave in Santa Ana.

Cities can do whatever they want with their streets, but if they modify arterial roadways specified under MPAH, they risk losing their transportation funding they were previously eligible and held by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), Garcia said.

Those funds are known as “OC Go” money, which cities can use to fund their infrastructure projects and improvements.

It goes back to one dilemma, Garcia said. “Do you want to improve traffic safety and lose transportation dollars, or stay in compliance and get your funds while still promoting this street infrastructure?” 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.