Duke Street crash raises street racing concerns

Duke Street crash raises street racing concerns
(Photo/Missy Schrott)

By Olivia Anderson | oanderson@alextimes.com

A car crash in the 3200 block of Duke Street left one person dead and two others badly injured late on Feb. 22. The incident, which involved five separate vehicles, has since led some community members to speculate that it might have been related to street racing, which they say has been occurring in the area for some time.

According to the Alexandria Police Department, officers responded to reports of a car crash around 11:50 p.m. and arrived to find five vehicles in the roadway that sustained damage. The crash resulted in the death of D.C. resident Bizuayehu Bulti, 39; one critical injury; one serious injury and two minor injuries.

“Initial investigation suggests that speed may have been a contributing factor to this crash but this incident is still under investigation and we hope to have more answers in the near future on what led to this crash,” APD Public Information Officer Marcel Bassett said.

Bassett said the five vehicles included a red Chevrolet Suburban with one driver believed to be in the eastbound curb lane; a black Toyota Corolla with one driver; a silver Toyota Rav4 with one driver and one passenger; a blue Honda Civic with one driver stopped at the light facing westbound and a red Nissan Sentra with one driver stopped at the light facing westbound.

According to the police scanner, at 11:51 p.m. on Feb. 22 there was a “possible entrapment” on Duke Street.

“We have someone on top of a vehicle trying to get a victim out. It’s going to be a silver SUV, dark sedan, unknown description for the third, we also have medics en route,” the dispatcher said, adding later that there was “possibly smoke coming from one of the vehicles.”

The suspect vehicle, then identified as a black suburban with possible damage to the passenger side, fled the scene. It was located, abandoned, at 12:51 a.m. on Library Lane and subsequently towed, along with the other four vehicles.

Duke Street was closed for more than eight hours, with APD tweeting at 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 23 that it had finally reopened.

Since the crash, some neighboring residents have pointed to an upsurge in street racing in the area as a possibly related element of the crash.

Kate Sal, who lives near Duke Street and Cameron Station Boulevard, said she has observed groups of cars occasionally gathering at the nearby CVS Pharmacy before engaging in late night street racing. This latest incident, she said, is “not surprising” given the popularity of the location and level of noise emitted.

“They’re these little cars but ginormous engines, and just really noisy, so it’s not hard to hear them,” Sal said. “They peel up and down Duke Street. I’m in my house at that time and it’s usually late and that’s when I start hearing them, but it has been going on for quite some time.”

She also said she once got caught in a pod of four or five cars that appeared to be racing on I-495. According to Sal, the drivers were “jerking around with each other, revving each other up” and would take off and slow down erratically.

Del Ray resident and former Sheriff Dana Lawhorne recalled the first time he heard what he is sure was street racing occurring outside his home.

“We’re hearing this loud muffler exhaust noise coming from the beltway and it sounded like racing. We were all puzzled by it. One night when I heard it, I decided to get in the car and drive over to Telegraph Road and the beltway,” Lawhorne said. “Sure enough, [I] discovered that there was organized racing between the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Telegraph Road. What we were hearing was them going back and forth.”

Also known as drag racing, the organized effort generally includes a group of cars meeting at one particular place. About 10 to 12 cars will occupy an area such as the beltway, with four or five cars slowing the lanes down so as to clear a path for the rest of them to race from point A to point B.

“When they came off the beltway they sounded like the Indy 500; they all came off in these little Toyota Corollas, cars no bigger than your trash can,” Lawhorne said.

According to Lawhorne, a group of residents have made complaints to state police through meetings and emails. They argued that a change in legislation two years ago regarding “modified mufflers” has contributed to the increase in noise levels that Lawhorne, Sal and other residents have been hearing over the past few years.

Prior to the new legislation, police officers could stop drivers solely on the basis of suspected exhaust noise. Under Virginia House Bill 5058 and Senate Bill 5029, however, they are no longer permitted to initiate traffic stops for various offenses including cars with altered exhaust systems.

“To me, there seems to be a correlation between the law change and the ability of the police to enforce these modified exhaust systems. This has significantly increased the noise level we’re hearing and racing is a factor,” Lawhorne said.

One resident, Sandy Levy, sent state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D–VA) a letter last year summarizing some of the community pushback to this law change, which Ebbin cosponsored.

“By now you must be aware that drag-racing has become a serious problem on the section of the beltway that runs through this district. Lives are threatened, and the noise level is intolerable for many Alexandria residents,” Levy wrote. “I assume that this change was made with good intentions, but insofar as it has hampered the police, it needs to be amended.”

In response, Ebbin called attention to the legislation’s purpose, which was to reduce traffic infractions that have often led to over-policing of communities of color.

While he expressed shared concern over the unintended consequences the legislation created, such as noise and air pollution, Ebbin also pointed to the authority of police departments to stop individuals for speeding or racing and localities to fine up to $500 for noise ordinance violations.

“I have spoken to Arlington and Alexandria to encourage them to use this authority to reduce noise pollution and disruption caused by altered exhaust systems,” Ebbin wrote at the time, acknowledging that said measures “may alone not be adequate enforcement mechanisms to maintain the peace and tranquility of our communities.”

Levy’s exchange with Ebbin followed a street racing incident that occurred in February 2021 near I-495 and Telegraph Road. The two drivers were arrested for racing and reckless driving, having reached speeds of 105 miles per hour.

In regard to the Feb. 22, 2022 incident, Bassett said APD could not comment on whether or not it could be considered street racing as the investigation is still ongoing. He emphasized that there needs to be enough evidence to substantiate such a claim.

“We’ve received complaints of street racing before, but many of them are unfounded, so what do you do? And even if there was, how do you prove it?” Bassett said. “We just don’t know; we’re going to do our due diligence to figure out what happened, and we will present that once we get it all together. But we can’t say anything preemptively, without having substantial evidence to prove what we’re saying.”

According to Bassett, the investigation is currently under way and involves closely examining each of the five vehicles involved in the crash. “We believe that everyone deserves due diligence, especially in something as sensitive as this,” Bassett said.

Anyone with information is encouraged to contact Officer Wesley Vitale at wesley.vitale@alexandriava.gov.