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The term “speed contest” means for one motor vehicle to race against another while on a public street, or in an area not designated for a car race. It can also refer to the act where you race a car against some type of timing device (such as a stopwatch).
Engaging in a speed contest is sometimes referred to as:
drag racing, or
Note that some jurisdictions extend criminal liability under speed contest laws to:
passengers in a racing vehicle,
people that organize a speed race, and
spectators of a drag race.
A violation of a speed contest law is typically charged as a misdemeanor (as opposed to a felony or an infraction). Depending on the facts of the case, a first-time offense could lead to:
time in county jail,
hours of community service,
a driver’s license suspension by the DMV, and
the impoundment of your vehicle.
1. What is the legal definition of “speed contest”?
Most jurisdictions say that you commit the crime of engaging in a “speed contest” if you:
drive a motor vehicle on a public road or highway, and
race the vehicle against another driver, a clock, or some other timing device.1
Note that the term “vehicle” has a broad definition and includes any device that a person can move along a road or highway.2 This definition may include a:
passenger vehicle (such as a car or pickup truck),
Please also keep in mind that you are typically only guilty of engaging in a speed contest if you race upon a public roadway. Under state traffic laws, speed contests normally do not include races upon property that is:
maintained by private entities, and/or
not open to the public for vehicle travel.
2. Will you only face criminal charges if you race a car?
The answer often depends on the state in which a race takes place. Some state laws say that you are only guilty of engaging in a speed contest if you race a motor vehicle.
But other jurisdictions say that you can face criminal charges if you:
ride as a passenger in a car that is racing,
help organize a race (for example, direct vehicular travel or collect money), or
watch a race.3
3. Is there a difference between a speed contest and a speed exhibition?
Many states do make a distinction between a speed contest and a “speed exhibition.”
While a speed contest carries the definition above, an exhibition of speed refers to driving a car to display its speed or power. Speed exhibitions typically involve:
the squealing of tires,
rapid swerving and weaving through traffic, and
producing smoke from tire slippage.4
As with a speed contest, speed exhibitions are criminal offenses that a district attorney will typically file as misdemeanors.5
4. Is a speed contest the same as reckless driving?
Many states consider a speed contest a form of reckless driving. This means a prosecutor can charge the offense under either a state’s:
speed contest law, or
reckless driving law.
You are usually guilty of “reckless driving” if you operate a motor vehicle with wanton and reckless disregard for the safety of others.6
Reckless driving is typically filed as a misdemeanor and is punishable by:
jail time, and
Penalties will likely increase if you commit the crime and:
Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Reckless driving.” See also People v. Schumacher (1961) 194 Cal.App.2d 335.
About the Author
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.