- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2012

Back-to-back street racing crashes in Prince George’s County over the weekend left one man dead and another critically injured, as county safety officials ramped up surveillance in a county with a history of deaths resulting from illegal drag-racing.

Cleon Wills, 22, of Bowie, was racing another car on Friday along Central Avenue in Seat Pleasant when the vehicle he was driving slammed into a turning Metrobus. He died from his injuries, a police spokesman said.

Fewer than 24 hours later, a 21-year-old man walking across University Boulevard in Adelphi was struck by a car that was racing another vehicle. Police found him lying in the road and took him to a hospital, where he was in critical condition Monday afternoon.

Police have the other driver from Friday’s crash and one of the drivers from Saturday’s crash in custody. They are still looking for the person behind the wheel of the car that struck the pedestrian.

Maj. Peter Eliadis, commander of the police department’s special operations division, said the two races were “spontaneous” and in areas not known for racing, unlike the planned 2008 race along Indian Head Highway that led to the deaths of eight people.

Both weekend crashes happened during the day in areas that are relatively crowded with businesses, motorists and traffic lights. On Friday, the crash was at about 9:30 p.m. in a populated area of Seat Pleasant near the Addison Road Metro station. Saturday’s crash occurred at about 3:15 p.m. along a busy stretch of road with multiple traffic lights and businesses.

“We see it all the time,” Maj. Eliadis said. “Two people leaving a location, they look at each other,” and a race begins.

Public safety officials said they will continue to monitor major traffic corridors in the county. Department helicopters also will use video surveillance to track speeders, especially motorcyclists, in the county.

“When people think nobody is paying attention, people can get hurt, people can get killed,” said Barry Stanton, the county’s public safety deputy chief administrative officer. “It’s important to at least let the community know we’re on top of this, we’re paying attention and we’ll continue to do that. Any loss of life for this kind of stuff is too much.”

Earlier this year, Maryland joined the national Toward Zero Deaths initiative to work toward eliminating the death rate on the state’s roads.

Figures provided by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration show preliminary numbers — not finalized until January 2013 — of 110 fatal speed-related crashes in 2011, compared to 117 in 2010, 139 in 2009, and 141 in 2008.

In 2008, an illegal drag race in the dead of night along a stretch of empty highway in southern Prince George’s County turned deadly when two cars lost control and careened into a large crowd of people gathered along Indian Head Highway to watch the race. Eight spectators were killed and the two drivers were charged with vehicular manslaughter, reckless driving and street racing.

“A lot of traffic fatalities have substantially gone down in this county,” Mr. Stanton said. “But keep in mind, Prince George’s County had one of the highest fatality rates in the state. We’re making progress and beginning to really bring those numbers down. This is just another example of why we need to stay on top of it.”

Larry Harmel, executive director of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said that after conversations with police chiefs, it appeared that based on the location and time of day for this past weekend’s crashes, the races “didn’t fit the mold of planning something out.”

“All we can do is keep our antennas up and be alert to that type of thing,” Mr. Harmel said. “A lot of it is being at the right place at the right time.”

Marc Black, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said spontaneous races like the two this past weekend are “much more difficult to work with and prevent.” He echoed the other safety officials’ strategy to curb future races using “high visibility and strict enforcement” on roads and monitoring areas known to host illegal races.

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