- January 24, 2018
Horizon West residents are tired of it.
And now, they’re fighting back against the street racing issue that has plagued the area for years.
The charge is being led by Windermere resident Kat Thomas, who has lived in the Venetian Isle community for more than two years.
Thomas recently organized a Facebook group — Residents Against Street Racing - Windermere, Horizon West, Winter Garden — which already has more than 200 members. She also has composed a petition asking for change, which has more than 500 signatures.
Although the topic of safety in relation to street racing is not a new concept in the area, the continued issues came to a head when a 16-year-old girl crashed her car into a tree on Village Lake Road May 8.
“I heard her tires screeching as she was going through the roundabout outside my window and then I heard the impact of a smash into the tree,” she said. “That was really the catalyst for me to say, ‘I’m taking matters into my own hands; this is becoming ridiculous.’”
Thomas currently is undergoing treatment for stage four cancer and said she is jolted awake from her rare, deep sleep often; although noise is the least of residents’ concerns when it comes to the dangerous driving habits.
Thomas said the street racing began in the area shortly after she moved into her current neighborhood. She said at the time, the racing was more sporadic and nowhere close to what she thought it would turn into being today.
After repeated incidents of the loud cars racing down the streets with screeching tires, Thomas said she knew she couldn’t be the only one concerned.
“The biggest problem is that the parents don’t seem to be doing anything about it,” she said. “These teens are driving souped-up muscle cars that they are working on in their driveways to enhance their performance. Neighbors see it happening, so do their parents. Yet somehow they do nothing to stop it or control their offspring. … Because there is no consequence for their actions, they continue acting out and they have escalated their antics. For these teens, anything goes.”
What’s more, what started as street racing has progressed to drag racing in recent months.
Sarah O’Brien moved in 2005 to the Horizon West area and said the change has been drastic.
“Driving and traffic now is a literal nightmare,” she said. “In the past few years alone, I have had one car totaled when it was parked in front of my house overnight. … My roommate had her car hit while it was parked in our driveway. … My spouse and I were rear-ended and pushed into two other cars, totaling our car. And our daughter got sideswiped crossing an intersection when a student driver made a wide turn.”
O’Brien said she has seen teens racing up and down the streets of Reams Road, Ficquette Road and Winter Garden-Vineland Road.
“We hear them all hours of the day and night, for hours and hours,” she said. “My neighbors and I have taken so many pictures of their cars, plates and them. Some live in my neighborhood. My neighbors have approached their parents, who carry the ‘kids will be kids’ attitude. We have filed numerous complaints with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, the 311 app and our homeowners association.
“In Independence last week, a 22-year-old driving at an overly excessive speed struck and killed that innocent 71-year-old man walking on the sidewalk,” O’Brien said. “That same day, the unlicensed (permitted) 16-year-old girl attempting donuts lost control and struck a tree with others in her car.”
That May 8 crash took place at one of the roundabouts on Village Lake Road in Lakeside Village. Thomas said it took officers an hour to make it out to the scene. After the crash, she saw an increase in police presence for a few days and no street racing, but it was short-lived.
Jay Hoffman, who lives in Lake Burden, also has witnessed the dangerous driving.
“Just a few weeks ago, someone came racing through the neighborhood, knocking over the stop sign at Ripplepointe Way and Grander Drive, and eventually smashing into a tree at Center Lake Drive,” he said. “We don’t know what happened to the driver. When we called 911, Windermere police had to transfer us to Florida Highway Patrol who took about an hour to arrive.
“When I was 16, a good friend was killed as a passenger in a car that was driving recklessly,” he said. “So it’s personal for me. I know every young person thinks they’re invincible. I did, too. Your perspective changes when you realize you aren’t invincible and you, your friend or a totally innocent person out walking could be hurt or killed because you’re acting stupid.”
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
Sheriff’s Office officials said the department has received 17 racing complaints in Southwest Orange County in the last 12 months. However, officials clarified not all the complaints are actual racing; loud exhaust from a single car often comes in as a racing complaint.
“Reckless driving and street racing (are) dangerous and illegal,” officials said in a prepared statement. “We know that this type of activity leads to serious injury and sometimes death to participants and other bystanders. These groups are not unique to Central Florida; it’s a nationwide problem.”
Although the reckless driving issue has remained consistent, Sheriff’s Office officials believe they are seeing a decrease in the behavior since they have enacted more aggressive enforcement.
“We work hard to keep motorists safe on our roads — it’s a top priority for us,” officials said. “From a law-enforcement perspective, this type of activity is challenging to address. (Because) these drivers are mobile, they often flee when law enforcement arrives, and that fleeing makes the streets even more dangerous for other drivers. However, our deputies continuously enforce traffic laws throughout Orange County.”
In addition to enforcement, over the last several weekends, officers have conducted a proactive initiative to combat the illegal street racing in the county. Dozens of arrests have been made, and hundreds of citations have been issued, officials said.
Anyone who witnesses this type of activity in unincorporated Orange County should report it by calling 911 or the non-emergency number, (407) 836-4357.
O’Brien said despite these efforts, the problems persist in Horizon West because of the long wait times for response.
“I know that OCSO has our backs when we need them, but their lack of attention and presence in our area does not make me feel safe, as this takes place literally every day on our streets,” she said.
Orange County District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson said street racing has been a hot topic in every area of her district.
Wilson said she met with Sheriff John Mina and Undersheriff Mark Canty in April.
“I relayed my support to the sheriff’s recent increased efforts, including use of helicopters to track fleeing suspects and impounding the car, or if the suspect flees forfeiture of the vehicle used for racing and will continue to support those efforts through the budget process so OSCO can grow and staff up as our population grows,” she said. “The sheriff is a constitutional officer who has the autonomy to prioritize and allocate budget for areas of concern, but we work closely on the community outreach, pedestrian and bike safety initiatives, school crossing safety and, of course, safer road design.”
Wilson said her efforts also include speed-limit studies leading to a decrease on several streets, approved at the Board of County Commissioners meeting May 2. The commissioners also adopted Vision Zero as part of an effort to make the roads safer.
“It will take time and all of us working together to change the ‘fast and furious’ mindset to a zero injuries, zero fatalities mindset,” she said.
Thomas said when students are out of school for winter or spring break, she has noticed the street racing increases.
With summer quickly approaching, she knows the street racing will become even worse.
“It’s not even going to take a death, because people have died from this, and they’re still not doing anything,” Thomas said. “My goal is to eradicate reckless driving on a regular basis so that it doesn’t ebb and flow. … We just want our neighborhood to be safe and normal.”