The Cape Argus rides along as Ghost Squad officers bust drag racers:
Cape Town - Rosary beads and a mini-blue snow globe hang from the rearview mirror of Adrian Long’s unmarked car.
His title is principal inspector for Cape Town Traffic Services, but for tonight he’s meant to keep that a secret. Long, who heads the special operations unit of the department – the Ghost Squad – has dispersed his team along a kilometre stretch of Robert Sobukwe Drive in Bellville South. And now he waits for things to heat up.
He starts another loop around the area, where drag racers and spectators are starting to line the road. He points out a garage where the dragsters congregate and where they get their coffee. Long knows more about these teens and twenty-somethings than they might think. But they know a thing or two about him too.
“They’re starting to recognise me.”
Tonight he doesn’t have his hoodie so he takes the back seat. He doesn’t wear a seat belt because that’s how this crowd rolls. He’s hesitant to say they’re predictable.
“Most nights we know where they’re going to be.”
Drag racing events used to attract an average of about 500 – and sometimes crowds of up to a thousand – on a typical night. Long says Ghost Squad operations have chiselled that number down to half.
But a scene can change in no time.
Ten minutes is all that stands between 20 and 200 people thanks to cellphones, Twitter and any other form of social networking.
SPOTTERS ON THE LOOKOUT
“They’re always trying to get one step ahead,” says Long.
Spotters on motor bikes speed by, watching out for cops and the Ghost Squad.
“Trust me, they’re out for us too,” Long says.
A few racers start to test the waters, revving their engines, peeling off for 50m or so at a time.
In this part of town, Long says, dragsters crop up from the guys in the mechanical trade. They purchase cheap cars - old Toyotas and Hondas - and modify them.
Many belong to what they call the American, German, and British clubs.
“Sometimes you’ll see the Union Jack flying there, or America’s stars and stripes,” Long says.
The N1, on the other hand, is where you’ll find BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes.
“It’s pretty friendly, but there’s a lot of money involved as well,” says Long.
HARD TO CATCH
“They’ll phone each other up and meet somewhere for a race on the spot, arrive and be gone again in five minutes. They’re very difficult to catch.”
Long says he has to be hard on dragsters.
“If you back down once, they will really take advantage of you,” he says.
“They know what they’re doing is wrong and they will seize any opportunity to do these events.”
Long radios to his team: “Okay we’ve got quite a few in the garage, just be patient.”
The unmarked car settles in a row of 30 cars.
Two black cars cut around a U-turn and peel off at the first robot. They don’t get far – the kilometre stretch of road is blocked off on both sides. Blue lights flash.
Long stands on a hill, watching the action.
“That white car? He’s a racer,” he says. “You can pick them out a mile away.”
He points out a dropped suspension.
“See that red bakkie? It looks like a piece of scrap, but it’s very quick.”
The operation is marked a success: 14 vehicles suspended for unroadworthiness, one arrest for drunken driving, 23 unlicensed drivers and 14 unlicensed vehicles. A total of 21 issues found with tyres, plates, safety belts, lights, and brakes. Also, 466 speeding offences were recorded in the area, the majority of which Long said were illegal drag racers.
Long, who used to be in charge of highway patrol, has headed up the Ghost Squad since it was formed in 2009. There are four units now, including a highway squad and a taxi squad.
There are other options for illegal street racers, Long says, pointing out regular events at Killarney. But it’s not enough. He said there is talk of opening up an alternative location, where activities can be regulated, but that’s still in the pipeline.
For now, though, the Ghost Squad has its work cut out.
“If enforcement is the way to go to change the mindset then so be it because we’ve done a lot of education and it’s not like they don’t know what they are doing is illegal and after education comes enforcement,” Long says.
“THEY ACTUALLY TRY TO FORCE US OFF THE ROAD”
Pieter Kriek says he is routinely run off the road.
The 60-year-old Atlantis Foundries employee says that every Thursday Neil Hare Road becomes a hot spot for illegal street racing.
“When we go home they actually try to force us off of the road,” he said. “They put a car there and flick their lights.”
Phone calls to the police proved to be fruitless, he said.
“They don’t want to know anything, they are there when it’s happening and they’re not doing anything about it.”
He said the straight stretch of road, in the industrial area, was where most employees travelled when leaving at about 11pm. The racing, which he said involves betting, got started about 10pm.
“Somebody’s going to get killed on that road because of the way they carry on,” he said. “What makes me cross is that the police vans are there watching them.”
Kriek said a colleague of his was killed about 12 years ago in one of the races and that the number of people lining the roads who were drinking was disconcerting.
“I don’t think they should be using public roads for things like this.”
GETTING TOUGH ON ILLEGAL RACERS
The city is seeking to roll out legislation to allow for tougher action against street racers in a bid to curb the illicit activity.
The Provincial Traffic Act regulations, which are to be passed later this year, would allow for more effective enforcement and greater consequences for traffic offenders, including the possible impoundment of vehicles used for illegal street racing.
JP Smith, mayoral committee member for safety and security, said there were more than 20 hot spots where racers gathered, and the busiest nights tended to be Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Smith said the city was targeting a host of street activities, including:
Illegal street racing: where two or more vehicles are involved in a race on a public road without written permission from the relevant authority.
Spinning: where a vehicle spins in circles resulting in excessive smoke (burning rubber).
- Drifting: where vehicles travel at certain speeds and the driver manipulates the steering causing the vehicle to drift from side to side.
Park-offs: where drivers gather in a group to showcase their vehicles, equipment, sound systems, modified engines, etc.
Traffic Services issued more than 3000 fines – nearly 80 percent of them for speeding – over four days recently and made 47 arrests. Officers also fined 111 drivers without driving licences, 60 of whom were caught during operations targeting illegal street racers.
Two to three times a week the city conducts operations that last until 3am or 4am in areas such as Robert Sobukwe Drive in Bellville South, where Cape Town Traffic Services patrols frequently.
The city is encouraging residents who see illegal drag racing to help by identifying drivers, noting the registration numbers and relevant distinguishing marks of the vehicles, and lodging a case for investigation with the police.
Smith said the motoring public needed to take greater responsibility for their actions, especially parents who allowed their children to leave home in cars unfit to be on the road and to drive even though they were not legally competent.
“It would further appear that the high number of road deaths in this country does not serve as enough of a warning,” he said. “The reality is that we can extend our policing capabilities to the hilt, but unless people change their behaviour and their attitudes, we will continue to battle with the levels of carnage on our roads that we are witnessing now.”
Residents who witness illegal street racing can call the emergency call centre at 107 from a landline or 021 480 7700 from a cellphone.