States have always had laws prohibiting traffic offenses such as speeding and reckless driving, but nothing that specifically dealt with racing. When “drag racing” emerged as a phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s, state legislatures responded by enacting laws banning speed contests and exhibitions. These laws apply to racing on a freeway.
Drag racing involves a speed competition between or among automobiles on a public road or highway. It’s a misdemeanor in most states. Like almost all crimes, drag racing requires that the defendant intentionally commit the illegal act; the driver must intend to participate in a speed contest. If the defendant doesn’t mean to race someone else, but is driving erratically or well above the speed limit, he or she is liable for a lesser offense such as speeding or reckless driving. But in order to convict someone of drag racing, it’s not necessary to prove exactly what the defendant was thinking -- the defendant's actions can be sufficient to establish the intent to race.
Several forms of behavior while driving will support a conclusion that someone is racing a vehicle. When taken alone, some are insufficient to establish the intent to race—for example, speeding. But, when considered in conjunction with other factors, they may establish that the driver is racing. Among the actions indicative of drag racing are:
The gist of illegal racing is competition—where there isn’t a contest the crime hasn’t occurred. So, two drivers simply traveling well above the speed limit and in close proximity won't usually constitute a racing violation. On the other hand, if witnesses observe the drivers repeatedly glance at each other and dart in and out of traffic lanes, a drag racing conviction is likely.
Many statutes that outlaw racing also proscribe "speed exhibitions," where someone drives a vehicle at an excessive speed for the purpose of attracting attention. For example, if a driver revs his engine, flashes his lights, and quickly accelerates until he is traveling much faster than the speed limit, he has likely committed the offense. It makes no difference that he wasn’t competing against another driver.
In many states, a defendant is subject to increased punishment if anyone is injured as a result of his or her drag racing. In addition, drag racing that results in another person’s death can support a conviction for vehicular manslaughter. If the defendant was an active participant in the race and someone died as a result of it, she is liable for the death even if she wasn’t the driver who actually struck the victim. Furthermore, all participants in a drag race can be held equally liable in a civil lawsuit for any injury resulting from it.