Is Street Racing Illegal?

How the law defines street racing and the penalties of a conviction.

Most people understand that doing the quarter-mile in less than ten seconds on a city street is going to be illegal. But many other activities such as peeling out, fishtailing, spinning donuts, and stomping the gas can also result in criminal charges.

The criminal charges that can result from street racing and similar conduct vary somewhat between states, but this article covers some of the most common types of street racing laws and penalties a person might face for a conviction.

Criminal Charges for Street Racing

In most states, street racing and similar conduct can lead to several different criminal charges. The most common charges for street racing include violations for "speed competitions," "exhibition of speed," and "reckless driving."

Illegal Speed Competitions

Often called "speed competitions," all states have some sort of prohibition against street racing. Definitions of speed competitions often include things like:

  • Drag racing. Drag racing is where two vehicles start from a standstill and race to a designated point. This type of speed contest basically looks like the iconic street racing events that are often portrayed in movies and on television.
  • Timed races. Speed contests don't have to involve more than one vehicle. In many states, even if only one vehicle is involved, racing against a clock or timing device to beat a certain time can is considered an illegal speed contest. However, the laws of some states clarify that seeing how quickly you can get home (without breaking the speed limit or other laws) is not considered illegal racing.
  • Pass blocking. In professional speed contests, racers will often take measures to prevent other drivers from passing them. But when a driver does something similar on public roads, it can be a speed contest violation. Actions that can get you in trouble might include changing lanes to prevent another driver from passing or speeding up when a driver attempts to pass. In many states, an officer who observes a driver intentionally blocking another driver from passing can issue a citation for racing.
  • Destination races. A speed competition between vehicles starting from one point and ending at a specified destination (even if not a straightaway race) is also illegal. In some states, organized "road rallies" or "scavenger hunts" are legal as long as all traffic laws are obeyed. However, some states prohibit any sort of destination competition involving cars.
  • Endurance race. As exemplified by the story of the tortoise and the hare, races can be won even without excessive speed. A few states prohibit any competition that tests the endurance or stamina of the vehicle or driver. However, the laws of most states don't prohibit driving competitions as long as the standard traffic laws are obeyed and the drivers are safe.

Overall, street racing laws tend to target situations where the participants are committing other traffic violations or creating unsafe situations on public roadways.

Exhibition of Speed Violations

While not technically racing, police can often stop a driver for showing off how quickly the vehicle can accelerate and other horsepower-related demonstrations. "Exhibition of speed" (also called "unsafe start") is a general term that is meant to encompass all the ways rapid acceleration can lead to unsafe driving. In most states, exhibitions of speed include:

  • peeling out
  • screeching tires
  • spinning donuts, and
  • accelerating at an unsafe speed.

Most exhibition of speed violations involve the driver intentionally losing tire traction by punching the gas while at a standstill or executing a turn.

Reckless Driving Violations

Reckless driving laws are more general than racing and exhibition of speed statutes. In other words, reckless driving is kind of a catch-all for any type of dangerous driving.

In most states, reckless driving is defined as operating a vehicle with a "willful or wanton disregard for the safety of other persons or property," or in some similar fashion.

Penalties for Street Racing, Exhibition of Speed, and Reckless Driving

The penalties for charges related to street racing vary greatly depending on the seriousness of the offense, the person's involvement, whether anyone was injured, and which offense(s) the prosecution charges.

Speed Contest Penalties

Generally, street or drag racing is a misdemeanor and carries up to a year in jail, a maximum $1,000 or so in fines, and possibly community service. The laws of some state laws contain mandatory minimums for jail time or community service.

An offender will also generally face license-related penalties. A racing violation could result in demerit points assigned to the driver's record or a period of license suspension.

Even people who were involved in the race but didn't actually get behind the wheel could face charges. In some states, aiding a street race is a misdemeanor and carries penalties similar to those that would result from being one of the actual racers.

Exhibition of Speed Penalties

Exhibition of speed is usually just a traffic infraction. The penalties for a conviction might include fines of about $50 to $300 and driver's license demerit points applied to the driver's record.

In some states, traffic judges can suspend a driver's license for exhibition of speed violations.

Reckless Driving Penalties

Generally, reckless driving is a misdemeanor. The penalties for reckless driving are typically about the same as those for street racing. The driver might face up to a year in jail, a maximum $1,000 or so in fines, demerit points, and the possibility of license suspension.

When Street Racing Can be Charged as a Felony

In most states, the penalties for street racing, exhibition of speed, and reckless driving are more serious if the offense resulted in bodily harm to or the death of another person.

These types of aggravated circumstances can elevate a street racing charge (or related offense) to a felony and result in thousands of dollars in fines and a number of years in prison.

The offender could also face felony vehicular assault or manslaughter charges.

Talk to an Attorney About Street Racing Charges

If you're arrested on charges related to street racing, it's a good idea to talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney. The laws of each state differ and the circumstances of every case are unique. A qualified defense attorney can evaluate your case and advise you on the best course of action.