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Slamming the brakes on street racers

Cape Town - Revving engines, burning rubber, backfires and screeching tyres. This is a standard Saturday night for the city’s Ghost Squad.

Photographer Willem Law rode along with the elite team of traffic officers on a anti-drag racing operation this weekend.

The Ghost Sqaud busts illegal drag racers in the southern suburbs. Picture: Willem Law. Credit: INLSA

The mission began at 9pm, with 35 officers gathering for a briefing at the Gallows Hill station.

Ten headed out with speed-trapping units. The rest slid into unmarked vehicles to case out drag-racing hot spots, where cars were already beginning to gather as their owners chatted and smoked ahead of the night’s activity.

Ghost Squad members are trained in high-speed driving techniques. They cruise drag-racing hot spots in unmarked vehicles, with casual clothes covering their uniforms.

They never ride two abreast, and never follow one another down the same turn-off, so as not to arouse suspicion from the racers’ lookouts.

They are authorised to drive at far-beyond-legal speeds when chasing down dicing racers.

But the drag racers run a slick operation too.

They gather between 11pm and 4am at muster points in Ottery, Athlone, Mitchells Plain and around the M5. Up to 500 cars rally at these points, with Thursdays being the most popular race night.

Spotters on motorcycles ride around the area, scouting for traffic police or possible Ghost Squad cars. If the coast is clear, the spotters will call in to the drag drivers and the race will be on.

Social media make it a struggle for the Ghost Squad to stay a step ahead. As soon as racers are pulled over by a squad car, they can post a description online, alerting spotters to the true identity of the incognito vehicles.

The squad recently acquired four new vehicles, and within a week, racers had wised up and recognised the unmarked cars as police vehicles.

And this isn’t the only battle facing traffic officers as they try to clamp down on drag racing.

Because the racers are so mobile and informal, it’s difficult to pinpoint where they’ll be – they move in minutes from one muster point to another.

They’re the devil to catch, making the job extremely time-consuming. Scores of officers pull nearly 12-hour shifts through the night, waiting and watching and occasionally chasing.

Many tip-offs come from the 10111 hotline, from people calling in to complain about the racket of revving engines.

Transport and public works MEC Robin Carlisle receives about five e-mails a week from people with drag-racing complaints.

Carlisle rode in the passenger seat with an officer while photojournalist Law looked on from behind. They didn’t see too much action for the first few hours, but after Carlisle had left the group the chase was on.

At 2am, the officer spotted two vehicles tearing through an intersection.

He followed, tailing them until all traffic was forced to stop at the next robot. When the light turned green, the two racers dropped into gear and screamed out ahead of the traffic officer.

The racer on the right was driving at such a speed that he was struggling to control his car. Once they realised an officer of the law was in hot pursuit, the two racers split up.

Within a kilometre, the Ghost Squad had caught up to one of the racers just before the slipway to the airport from the Bellville side.

The racer pulled over and put his hands on the bonnet to be cuffed.

A woman climbed out the car’s back door. She was the driver’s girlfriend, and had been asleep on the back seat.

The driver was taken to a police station, but his souped-up vehicle was untouched.

Carlisle is campaigning for powers to impound vehicles if their owners have been caught racing illegally. The release fee would be R7500.

The night’s successes included eight arrests for reckless and negligent driving, one for driving under the influence of alcohol, and fines ranging up to R800.

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