New rules on racing, mufflers may make Memphis streets safer and quieter

Investigations

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Private donations are now helping the city of Memphis crack down on noisy vehicles, while state lawmakers move closer to increasing penalties for drag racing, a growing, dangerous problem taking over Memphis streets.

The deafening noise of street racing and modified mufflers is familiar to most across the city.

Recently Memphis City Council passed a new ordinance drafted by Councilman Ford Canale that outlaws these mufflers.

The problem, Canale explained, is not from old vehicles, but from after-market modifications. A driver will take out the muffler that came with their car and install a new one to make a louder or deeper noise.

Now, Memphis Police can not only write a citation, but require a mandatory court appearance where a judge can require a repair or replacement and can give a voucher for the work.

That means it won’t cost the driver a dime. Private donors are covering the repair costs.

“We got a $10,000 donation from Bill Townsend and we had some anonymous donations since then,” said Meghan Medford with the Summer Avenue Merchants Association, the organization that raised the money to cover muffler repairs.

She said businesses and residents are fed up.

“We could just hear all of the racing up and down Summer Avenue,” she said.

Reckless driving, illegal drag racing and complaints of loud cars climbed since COVID. Police believe it was fueled by boredom and now, they have had to create task forces and call state and county law enforcement for help.

In 2020, Memphis Police received 1,973 calls for a vehicle disturbance. That’s more than the number of calls in 2019 (1,063) and 2018 (843) combined.

Last year, officers report giving out 22 city ordinance violations for mufflers that either weren’t in good working order or had excessive or unusual noise. They gave out five citations in 2019 and 15 in 2018.

Billy Holley owns one of the shops that’s agreed to repair mufflers for the city. He says the process isn’t hard, and takes about an hour.

The goal is to have safer streets, said state Rep. John Gillespie. He says he supports the council’s efforts as he works to pass stricter laws.

Gillespie helped file a bill that would classify illegal street racing as a Class A misdemeanor instead of a Class B, which basically likens it to a crime more like a DUI charge.

Anyone convicted would then face a fine up to $2,500 and could also get a up to a year in jail. It would also gives the district attorney’s office more ability to seize the vehicle.

Canale said depending on what happens at the state level, the council will revisit another ordinance he drafted allowing police to ticket spectators, organizers and passengers who participate in illegal drag racing events.

“It’s hard enough problem dealing with other crime in the city and then you throw this on top, it compounds the issue,” Canale said.

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