The deadly toll of illegal street racing in Los Angeles

World Today

Movie fans may be used to seeing cars racing through Los Angeles. But it’s a very real problem for the city’s residents.

Since the turn of the century, at least 179 have died in illegal street races in-and-around LA. Racers say they want legal avenues to pursue their passion. But it’s not a simple proposition, nor is it cheap, as CGTN’s Phil Lavelle reports.

High-speed races are a staple of Los Angeles life, be they police chases on TV news bulletins, or in blockbuster movies. The “Fast and the Furious” franchise has been one of Hollywood’s most successful exports of all time. But it’s a scourge of real life for the city’s residents who can find entire roads taken over when illegal races spring up.

According to research from the Los Angeles Times, at least 179 people have been killed in suspected street racing accidents since 2000.

It’s hard to gauge an exact number because many of the crowds flee after an accident, leaving police unsure if a crash was caused merely by a driver going too fast, or somebody who fatefully accepted a challenge that cost their lives.

Lili D’Alessandro knows about the horrors of illegal racing. She lost her teenage daughter, Valentina, in 2013.

Valentina had been at a friend’s house and accepted a ride home from a friend. During the journey, the friend was challenged to a race and accepted, with horrendous consequences.

“He was going extremely fast, over 100 mph,” she told CGTN. “He crossed the red light, crashed against an SUV and then against the fence and Valentina was partially ejected from the window.

She’s the only one who passed away. Had he not taken the challenge of this street race, my daughter would still be alive. He was just taking her home.”

Lili now spends her time traveling around LA, talking to teenagers, warning them of the dangers of street racing. She shows them pictures of her daughter before she died and talks about the moment she found out what had happened to Valentina, in the hope that the shock will make them take notice when they’re faced with a split second decision.

Her challenge is competing against an adrenaline rush that many teenagers find too appealing to resist.

Mario Saggiani Jr. likes to race and has been to his share of illegal races. “Everyone’s out there having a good time,” he told us. “But it becomes worrisome if someone wrecks or the police come. You get your car impounded or go to jail yourself.”

Saggiani is an advocate of legal racing, where drivers can push their cars to the limits at a sanctioned track.

The problem is that Los Angeles doesn’t have many, much to the frustration of Donald Galaz, a veteran street racer who acts as spokesperson for the International Brotherhood of Street Racers.

He tells CGTN, “We have done illegal events, illegal organized events, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. We go to industrial areas, we take them to areas where there are no houses around and we try to do it as safe as possible. To put a dent in it, you have to open more local raceways and have more outlets for not just youngsters but older people who are into the culture. The more facilities, the more outlets you have, the more people you will get off the streets. You won’t completely stop it. But you will get them to the tracks. All of a sudden, there’s not going to be anybody to race out there because they’ll be on the track racing. So it’ll be tough to find someone to race on the streets if there are more facilities.”

Galaz says he has spent years trying to get the message through to local politicians, but has not made much headway.

Los Angeles City Council Member Mitchell Englander said the primary reason for a lack of tracks is money. “We used to have them, some here in Los Angeles,” he told us. “The problem is that the land is so cost prohibitive. Private operators don’t wanna operate them, and you’ve got a liability issue.” But he said there may yet be hope for the racers, acknowledging this an issue unlikely to go away.

“First of all, we have got to uphold the law and we take this incredibly seriously,” he told said. “That said, the other idea, if somebody can put up the money, is to try to find opportunities where we can either shut down local streets or do something on an interim basis, if it’s infrequent, just to get people to do that and have a safe place to do that.”