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Illegal car races

Ben KnightMarch 2, 2016

Illegal car racing has preoccupied the local media in Berlin, following two serious accidents in a month. Authorities are under pressure to come up with a plan, but they say preventing such races is nearly impossible.

Deutschland Aufräumarbeiten nach illegalen Autorennen in Berlin BdT
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

A rash of illegal car racing has claimed yet more victims in Berlin. A taxi driver and his passenger were hospitalized in the early hours of Tuesday morning when their taxi was rammed by an Audi in the Moabit district of the city.

The news broke on the same day that the police announced that it had arrested a 27-year-old man on a manslaughter charge for the death of a 69-year-old driver accidentally caught in an illegal race on one of Berlin's most central streets, the Tauentzienstrasse, in early February.

Some 41 such incidents were recorded in the nation's capital last year, but races are likely to be a lot more widespread after police were forced to admit this week that there is little they could do to prevent them.

"Both the races normally organized conspiratorially and at very short-notice as well as the spontaneously-agreed 'ad hoc' races in random traffic meetings can only be registered and conclusively documented in exceptional cases," the police said in a statement.

CDU Bundesparteitag in Berlin (Frank Henkel )
Henkel says new drivers shouldn't be allowed high-power carsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Often it's just two drivers stopping next to each other at a traffic light," said Andreas Tschisch, the head of Berlin's traffic police. "Big heavy cars with young drivers, then someone presses the gas pedal, they glance over to see how the other driver reacts, a few glances signal the race is starting - and then they race to the next lights."

Other times, Tschisch told DW, two or three people make a quick arrangement by phone and meet for a race - often as soon as ten minutes later. There are usually no spectators, though sometimes there will be passengers in the cars.

Protests and outrage

But the police's caveats won't be much help to the city's Interior Minister Frank Henkel, who has been under increasing pressure to find a plan, particularly after demonstrators belonging to a cyclists' initiative staged a sit-in protest at the spot where the 69-year-old man was killed.

"Illegal car racing on the Tauentzien and the Kurfürstendamm have been well-known for a long time," initiative head Heinrich Strössenreuther said at the time. "Interior Minister Frank Henkel, Transport Minister Andreas Geisel and Police President Klaus Kandt are apparently just watching and doing nothing."

Henkel insisted this was not the case. "I believe that this illegal street racing is a real safety problem, which the Berlin police has had to deal with for some time," he said. "I have brought this up several times [... ] with the police president, and the police reacted."

Henkel's solution so far has been to call for tougher sentencing and a horsepower limit on the cars that new drivers are allowed to buy. "One of the perpetrators has only had his drivers' license since 2014," Henkel told local broadcaster RBB. "You have to ask the question whether someone with so little experience should be allowed to drive a high horsepower [car] like that."

Do something!

Strössenreuther dismissed this as an easy sound bite. "There are a lot of German states with a political majority that wants stricter traffic laws, so please, why not start such an initiative?" he told DW. "But what [Henkel] said was classic politician talk - a brief statement, the media goes on and that was it."

Polizei Dortmund Raser Blitzer Geschwindigkeitskontrolle Wallraser Tuning Szene
Simply adding more speed traps isn't workingImage: Polizei Dortmund

As if to prove Strössenreuther's point, Henkel's office responded to DW's request for comment only by referring to the minister's statement from early February, quoted above. The activist also had little sympathy for the police claim that illegal racing is very difficult to combat. "There's mobile phone surveillance, radio surveillance, we know where they meet, they organize on Facebook, Twitter, or similar - more can be done than what is being done today," he said.

But his demands got little understanding from the police. "It's not like we have this 20 times a day at a certain traffic light in the city," Tschisch told DW. "Of course, the perpetrators always look and check that there's no police nearby."

He also said the police have no legal power to start phone-tapping potential racers. "Surveillance is only possible for serious crimes - if I have a kidnapping, or a serious drug dealing offense, and I have some concrete evidence, then I can get a judge's warrant," he said.

Tschisch also thinks the current media interest in Berlin has inflated the awareness of the problem, giving the impression that it is growing more than it really is. "Suddenly everyone thinks they've seen an illegal race," he said. "I don't want to minimize the problem, but it doesn't warrant the mega-hype in the media right now."