Jul 26, 2023 - News

Philadelphia's illegal car meetups drift toward chaos

Illustration of a steering wheel with a thief's mask on it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Philadelphia police are cracking down on illegal car meetups that have turned increasingly violent this summer.

Why it matters: These meetups often shut down city roads and pose safety risks, with recent law enforcement responses ending in injuries and, in one case, death.

Driving the news: At least two officers were injured after responding to one of several car meetups last weekend in North and Northeast Philadelphia, the Inquirer reports.

  • No arrests have been made but police are scouring footage, commissioner Danielle Outlaw said on Twitter Sunday.

The incident comes a month after an 18-year-old was fatally shot by a Pennsylvania State Police trooper responding to an illegal meetup along I-95 near Penn's Landing, where cars were drifting and performing other stunts.

The big picture: Street racing and meetups have long been part of the culture in Philadelphia and other U.S. cities, with organizers pushing for activities to be legalized and officials adopting new tactics to stop them.

  • In Seattle, officials are considering setting up cameras that would ticket those who engage in illegal street racing, Axios' Melissa Santos writes.
  • Florida legislators passed a law to charge street race drivers, passengers and anyone caught filming from a vehicle with a first-degree misdemeanor, Axios' Deirdra Funcheon writes.

Zoom in: Philadelphia lawmakers recently passed an anti-drifting bill that they hope helps address the problem. It'll impose increased fines on violators, up to $2,000, plus $300 for spectators.

  • The legislation will also allow police to seize vehicles suspected of being involved in street racing and meetups, Councilman Michael Driscoll tells Axios. It's awaiting Mayor Kenney's signature.

By the numbers: Dozens of Philly officers are assigned to two regional teams that focus on disrupting street meetups in part by monitoring social media, where they're often advertised by an "informal network of muscle car aficionados," per the Inquirer.

  • Police declined to say if enforcement has increased in recent years, or how many car meetups officers have responded to so far this summer.
  • Since 2020, Pennsylvania State Police have issued more than 300 citations to drivers for racing on highways, per the latest data.

Between the lines: Philly police are also struggling to discourage other illegal street behavior. Despite a 2021 ban on off-road vehicles and new related penalties, ATV and dirt bike-riding has continued to fill downtown streets.

What they're saying: "Our streets, highways, and all public spaces are meant for everyone, not a select few treating them as their own amusement park," Driscoll said in a statement.

  • John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, cited staffing shortages within the department as part of the problem, per CBS.

The unsanctioned events cast a cloud over Philly's reputable community of car enthusiasts, Mercedes Valle, president of 2 Infamous 4 Da Streets Auto Club, tells Axios.

  • "You're killing the sport for everyone," she says.

Meanwhile, activists say the meetups are sometimes popular among youth who are looking for summertime activities.

  • They argue that to discourage participation the city needs to provide alternate fun spaces for youth, per WHYY.
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