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Canada likes to think of itself as a country of mild, apologetic, law-abiding folk. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that one of the most popular things to do in Canadian cities since the outbreak of the pandemic is to tear around the streets in throbbing muscle cars and on screaming motorcycles, shattering speed limits, breaking laws, risking lives and filling the night with the sound of obnoxious defiance.

Street racers started to appear en masse in the first summer of COVID-19. With traffic diminished because of lockdown measures, these rebels without a clue swarmed the half-empty highways, dodging and weaving from lane to lane in search of thrills. In Toronto alone, police gave out hundreds of tickets. Just outside Toronto, they stopped a car going 186 kilometres per hour. The driver’s girlfriend, seven months pregnant, was inside.

Now summer’s here, the time is right, and the racers are back. Anyone who lives near a highway can hear the artificially boosted whine of car and motorbike engines at all hours. It isn’t just the highway either. You can see would-be hot-rod angels roaring down even ordinary streets, through quiet neighbourhoods filled with parks and schools.

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In Toronto, it is as if the annual Indy-car race is on every day. Living in a city, you expect a certain level of background noise: cars, buses, planes, garbage trucks. This is different, an invasive, intrusive and almost constant din.

It’s annoying and it’s illegal. When Toronto updated its noise by-law in 2019, it outlawed “unnecessary motor vehicle noise, such as the sounding of a horn, revving of an engine, squealing of tires.” It also put a decibel limit on the noise motorbikes can emit. Fines rose from a maximum of $5,000 to $100,000. This must be one of the least obeyed of any city ordinance. You can hear it being flouted just by leaning your head out the window.

And of course the racket is the least of it. Street racers put themselves and everyone around them in danger. In one recent crash on Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway, a 39-year-old woman was killed and two men injured in a motorcycle accident. Police said there were reports of several motorbikes weaving in and out of traffic on the winding expressway. In Vancouver this spring, two cars were racing on a suburban roadway at high speed when one of them slammed into a concrete barrier. The driver somehow walked away, but the car burst into flames.

Authorities say they know there is a problem and insist they’re taking action. The Ontario government is cracking down on high-risk driving by bringing in a steep increase in penalties. Police are stepping up enforcement. In Ontario’s Waterloo region this May, they laid 26 charges after a night of car rallies. In Toronto they laid 90 per cent more charges in the first five months of this year than they did in the same period last year. At a news conference this week, police commanders said that a special investigation of “highly organized” stunt driving and street-racing events had led them to make dozens of arrests and impound 62 vehicles.

They are only scratching the surface. The rise of street racing is a popular phenomenon fueled by fast-breaking social media alerts, the hot-car cult and movies that glamorize it all. The boredom and frustration of pandemic times has poured diesel on the flames. Putting them out may take an effort on the scale of the campaign against drunk driving, but it would be worth it.

Far from just causing a nuisance, brazen street racing contributes to an atmosphere of lawlessness that makes others feel unsettled and unsafe. Those racing engines in the night signal that the drivers don’t give a damn for anybody but themselves and their own amusement. They think that breaking the law is perfectly fine if they can get away with it, which, most of the time, they can. They think that treating fellow motorists like so many pylons on a race course is only a bit of fun. They think that the roar of their engines is something the rest of us should just learn to love as much as they do.

Those selfish feelings tend to spread. That’s dangerous, too. Authorities need to take street racing much more seriously than they have so far.

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