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Takin' it off the streets

Movies play a role in road-racing deaths and a retired cop wants them to stop
Retired Saanich Police Staff Sgt. Doug Oakley in his 1979 Pontiac LeMans. He's working to move illegal street racing to the drag strip.

The closing credits hadn't even stopped rolling and already the off-screen action was beginning.

As moviegoers wandered into Tillicum Centre's outdoor parkade after a showing of Fast Five at SilverCity, a Vin Diesel wannabe revved up his black sports car, slammed into reverse and screeched off.

After burning rubber to the roadway, he lurched to a halt, narrowly missing a pedestrian.

The driver was much like the fifth film in the lucrative Fast and Furious car-racing franchise - loud, dumb and adrenalinpumped. And his actions were a sobering reminder of how such movies can contribute to a rise in reckless driving.

Fast Five is more absurd heist flick than foray into the subculture of illegal street racing that propelled its predecessors. Still, the Diesel-fuelled blockbuster, which left its competition in the dust with $180 million in worldwide box-office, glamorizes reckless driving for an impressionable audience.

Although there are no Canadian statistics, police notice spikes in dangerous driving after the release of such films.

It's not that Fast Five isn't entertaining, but there's a price.

These movies glorify automotive action that in the real world isn't achievable - such as walking away from an exploding vehicle with coiffed hair, or making turns at speeds so high they must be computer-enhanced. Most such films don't even look away from the muscle cars and hotties long enough to address such grim reality as spinal damage, death, shattered lives.

If Doug Oakley has his way, illegal street racing will soon be gone, although maybe not in 60 seconds.

"I believe these movies do inspire people to act out the same as we've seen for years with people leaving the racetrack," says the retired Saanich police staff sergeant.

The drag racing enthusiast is co-ordinator of the Saanich police dragster program. Founded in 1995 and supported by sponsors and community policing, it puts Oakley and fellow volunteers on the road with cool cars. They're used as educational tools to address street racing, drinking and driving, drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, bicycle safety and other issues.

The program began with a restored 1970 front-engine dragster, followed in 2003 with a 1979 Pontiac LeMans modified to become a drag car by Reynolds Secondary School auto shop students and, last year, a 1948 Fiat Topoleno replica.

Oakley and his Pontiac rolled into the Caprice Theatre's parking lot on opening night with representatives of the South Island Straight Liners Racing Association. Their message: If you want to race cars, do it legally on the track, not on the street.

"There's a great alternative to street racing called drag racing, which is a legitimate sport," says Oakley, who for years has helped high school students build hot rods with donated engines and given them a chance to race at Western Speedway.

While action movies have impressive stunts and graphics, their focus on "something so dangerous" concerns him.

"If people don't have the maturity to handle a 3,000pound weapon, mimicry can lead to tragedy."

There's a glimmer of hope in B.C., where wouldbe offenders are starting to think twice, thanks to stiffer penalties including heavy fines and vehicle impoundment being imposed since Fast and Furious raised red flags.

"It's dying down naturally," says Oakley, noting fewer kids than in his day are rushing to get licences when they turn 16.

Still, it distresses Oakley that traffic fatalities remain so high.

"The reality is six times the number of young people between 13 and 25 - a lot of girls start dating boys with cars at 13 and 14 and become passengers - die in traffic accidents compared to all other reasons. And almost all are preventable."

Tracy Barnes, a driving force behind the racing association, says not just movies are to blame.

"People who go to a movie and drive like that are going to drive like that whether they see that movie or not," she says.

Her association's objectives are to attract "street racers" to its sanctioned drag race venue.

The mother of two said she teaches her sons aged 11 and 13 the difference between the reality of life and the fantasy of movies and TV - a message she imparts during appearances at schools.

"Some get the message, some don't," she says. "I want to ensure shrubbery and trees line our roadways, not memorials."

To watch a trailer of Fast Five, visit