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Fatalities don't slow road races, police say

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  • Fatalities don't slow road races, police say

    July 15, 2004, 12:21AM

    Fatalities don't slow road races, police say
    Some blame lax enforcement for rising speeds
    Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

    The spectacular head-on crash that killed two people Tuesday night in southwest Houston highlights a larger problem -- the enduring popularity of street racing across the city and county, accident investigators say.

    At least 16 people have died in the past year and a half in racing-related accidents in Houston and Harris County, including the latest victims, two young men killed in the 10900 block of Harwin.

    The exact number of fatalities stemming from street racing is not known because the Houston Police Department does not keep count of which accidents involve racing, but investigators say the activity is as popular as ever locally. Most of the deadly crashes known to involve racing happened on well-traveled streets, statistics show.

    "It doesn't surprise me, because we do have quite the car culture in the area, people that like to race," said Lt. John Denholm of the Harris County Sheriff's Department traffic enforcement division. "It's like the old driver's education slogan -- the speed that thrills is the speed that kills. They just don't understand how dangerous it is."

    The thrill-seeking usually takes place at night, most prominently among young males. The activity is no mere hobby, but a passion for many drivers -- many specialty shops sell nitrous oxide injection systems, high-performance exhaust systems and high-performance ignition systems that convert mild engines into full-blown street-racing machines and enable drivers to reach top speeds. Strangers sometimes engage each other in races on area freeways with a simple flick of their emergency hazard lights, Denholm said.

    But another veteran accident investigator said Houston police have taken a hands-off approach to the issue since the public outcry over "Operation ERACER," the controversial raid at a westside Kmart parking lot designed to crack down on street racing in 2002. The initiative led to nearly 300 arrests -- none of them related to racing -- but became a public relations nightmare for the Police Department, and charges were dropped after the department was deluged with complaints and lawsuits.

    The department denies softening its approach toward street racers. "If anything, we're trying to think of more innovative ways to approach it," said Capt. Dwayne Ready.

    The latest tragedy happened at 8:45 p.m. Tuesday as Luis Fernando Lagos Garcia, 19, and his 24-year-old brother were driving separate cars on Harwin near Rogerdale, and the younger man lost control. As he was trying to pass his brother, Luis Lagos' Honda Civic -- a souped-up, salvaged car bought for $600 -- struck the center median, knocked down three live oak trees, then went airborne, flipped over and landed on top of an oncoming Suburban, police said.

    The impact killed Luis Lagos and a passenger in the Suburban, 20-year-old Juan Jose Razo. Three others were hurt -- Razo's brother, Miguel Angel Razo, 21, who was driving the Suburban, was in serious condition at Memorial Hermann Hospital late Wednesday, while two sisters riding in the airborne Honda Civic, Suyapa Rosales, 16, and Jhoan Rosales, 18, suffered less serious injuries, police said.

    Four or five witnesses not involved in the crash told police the Lagos brothers appeared to be racing, but the elder brother, Eduardo Lagos, denied that Wednesday.

    Police said they will explore whether the surviving Lagos brother could be charged as an accomplice in the actions that led to his younger brother's death. The case will be sent to a Harris County grand jury for review, said Houston Police Department accident investigator James Tippy, among those assigned to the case.

    Houston has become a known hotbed for street racers because of its sizable roadways, ample places to hold impromptu races and lax enforcement because of low police manpower, Tippy said Wednesday.

    "It's known nationwide -- it is known across the country that this is the place to come race every Friday and Saturday night," Tippy said. "There are hundreds, possibly thousands of people, who come here strictly for racing."

    There aren't enough officers to deal with the racing problem, Tippy said. "There is no one with the Houston Police Department that is targeting the drag racing problem on the west and northwest end of the city," he said. "I think the biggest problem is the department is gunshy after the Kmart operation. ... Ever since Operation ERACER, our department has basically taken a hands-off approach to it."

    Ready strongly disputed that Wednesday, noting Capt. Rick Bownds appointed a special group of officers in December to specifically address racing, loitering, curfew violations and drinking in west Houston, where street racing is most prevalent.

    Bownds did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday, and the squad's arrest and citation statistics were not available. Lt. Ken Maeker, who supervises the squad, also could not be reached for comment.

    Tippy said there needs to be a multiagency task force -- including HPD, the Harris County sheriff's traffic investigators and Department of Public Safety troopers -- working each weekend to truly curtail the problem.

    Racing will never be eliminated, Denholm said, but can be reduced with diligent enforcement and severe penalties. A state law that took effect Sept. 1 provides enhanced penalties for racing, making it a second-degree felony if someone suffers serious bodily injury or dies. Since then, the charge has been filed in several fatal accidents investigated by the sheriff's department.

    "What these kids and these people involved in racing don't understand is the laws of physics are very unforgiving," Denholm said.
    Houston Chronicle
    "Blue Oh-Two" (#424)
    Rick's header, Hondata gasket, Mugen thermostat/fan switch, Mugen radiator cap, Aussie mirror, Lucid's rear speakers, Alpine CDA-7893R & KCE-865B, Muz's saddlebag, Windscreen Light, Modifry's glove box organizer and lots of Zaino!