NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — When the pandemic arrived in Newport Beach, so did tourists looking to cool their heels in the blue surf, and with some of them came honking, engine revving luxury vehicles with lots of horsepower.
There was street racing, too. Not of the “Fast and Furious” variety.
Less theatrical though still dangerous. Sometimes, races began with head nods at stoplights, the drivers consenting to a risky competition on a busy public street.
Joy Brenner, a Newport Beach city council member, could hear them from her home. Drivers would pulse their engines at the stop sign on Marguerite Avenue, then rocket all the way to San Joaquin Hills Road.
“Everyone there is subjected to this all day and night,” Brenner said.
The City Council doesn’t enforce laws and has no influence over personnel decisions at the Newport Beach Police Department, but once she began discussing the problem with them, a plan emerged.
Other residents began making their complaints known, and code or traffic violations of eye-catching vehicles like Lambourginis became hard to miss.
Brenner went to Lieutenant Damon Psaros, the department’s traffic commander. He had already begun creating a plan.
The influx of noisy drivers, he said, extended to other coastal towns with an unseasonably high number of out-of-town visitors.
The police held their first operation to crack down on a slew of violations, including reckless driving and illegal registration, back in March.
But the efforts for safer streets have also included outreach to car shows and clubs to build awareness of the problem. And Psaros began to form a coalition with other local police, including the Irvine Police Department and California Highway Patrol.
More crackdowns were planned.
Dozens of officers converged for another operation in the city in late May. It’s the latest show of force in what is expected to be a regular operation for the rest of the summer. The officers selected have experience with outreach and writing press releases, selected for their familiarity with illegal street modifications as much as their skill with communication.
“There was lawlessness, and I think it was because of the pandemic,” Brenner said. “I feel like all the citizens that were just begging for help got some.”
Officers stopped 445 vehicles for violations. Many were cited for code violations, including loud or modified exhausts. Four were caught exceeding 100 mph.
The crackdown comes as Orange County continues to reopen and the beleaguered tourism industry gets restarted. Now the state of California has zeroed in on June 15 for a full reopening. Brenner said she’s not sure how that will impact traffic into the city.
Numbers could rise, but the key has been reestablishing order. She credited Psaros and the city police force.
“I think they all realize it’s really a matter of life and death that we get this under control,” Brenner said. “It was really an accident waiting to happen.”