Dead Man's Curve, it's no place to play.
Dead Man's Curve, you best keep away.
-- "Dead Man's Curve," 1964 LET ME ADMIT from the start that I've been in drag races. Never with much success, mind you, but familiar enough with the ways of this burn-and-peel auto competition. I once took part in an illegal drag on a side road that other kids had deliberately blocked off for these races.
But mostly my drag-strip experience was limited to official raceways where they have the Christmas-tree staged lights, the pervasive smell of burning rubber, the straightaway measured quarter-mile, and the unforgiving electronic timer that often contradicts the barroom braggadocio of muscle-car owners.
Drag vs. street racing
That is drag racing. It is not street racing, an illegal chase that too often leads to tragedy as did the unthinking deadly dash by three cars on Route 140 near Sandymount this month.
Drag racing may have its dangers, but it is not street racing, where the menace is much greater. So let's set the record straight: Stop calling the thoughtless mayhem of selfish, callous punks with autos "drag racing."
If you want to see how off-track, wheel-to-wheel drag racing is run, check out the classic 1955 movie "Rebel Without a Cause," in which James Dean emerges as winner and cultural icon of the restless generation. Or "Grease" for a light-hearted view of viaduct drag races in Southern California. (Or "Heart Like a Wheel" for the feel of real drag racing.)
"Rebel" may have nurtured racing bravado in adolescents of that day, but it depicts (in a socially redeeming manner?) the fatal price for such foolhardy abandon.
Jan and Dean
A decade later, Jan and Dean recorded the satirical hit "Dead Man's Curve," in which an improbable "drag race" was supposedly run on L.A. streets (which had constant traffic jams and heavy police patrols). Despite a contrite confessional in the lyrics that street racing was deadly foolish, that song encouraged hot rodders to search for the fatal curve and to prove their testosterone horsepower.
It may be that I'm too particular about use of the term, but kids in my school knew the difference between street and drag racing. I got a nasty gash on the head as a hapless passenger in a street race accident. It was stupidity in the extreme, never to be repeated.
My intent is not to glorify drag racing, or to tendentiously warn against it. It's simply to point out the distinction between street racing and drag racing.
And how it's pretty near impossible in these parts to have a real drag race on our crowded roads.
The purpose is also to emphasize that those who choose to put fellow human beings in danger by their heedless driving deserve the full measure of legal penalties. The judicial system will decide guilt and punishment, but already we're hearing the usual exculpatory whining from the accused that they were just driving in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I just hope the state's attorney is serious about prosecuting all the "race" participants as contributors to the tragedy.
The death of Mount Airy teacher Geraldine Lane Wu and the injury to her teen-age daughter when an out-of-control racing driver crashed into Wu's car, should be sober cause for all of us to consider our conduct on the highway. Not just racing or speeding but all manner of thoughtless behavior that endangers and enrages others, leading to dangerous consequences.
'Through my wife's death '
Mrs. Wu's husband, Laurence, struggles to find something positive to hold on to. "Hopefully, through my wife's death . . . there will be increased awareness about traffic safety," he said.
That should be the hope of all of us. We know that traffic "accidents" kill tens of thousands of Americans each year. Drunken driving gets a lot of the blame, rightfully so. But an all-too-common cause is speeding and reckless driving. When there's no eyewitness or definitive evidence, the cause becomes the ambiguous "driver error."
Three men have been implicated in the fatal race for automotive manslaughter. One of them has 26 driving violation points in the past three years. Another has two speeding citations in that period.
The first driver, with 10 tickets, was told by the state to turn in his driver's license in December 1995. But the Motor Vehicle Administration gave him another license within two months. He had two more high-speed violations in 1997, but his license was not suspended.
There's not much public safety lesson there.
Geri Wu paid the price. The lawbreakers who ended her life should live forever with the memory.
"I know I'll never forget that horrible sight,
When I guess I found out for myself that everyone was right:
Walk out back from Dead Man's Curve."
Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.
Pub Date: 6/14/98