(Dec. 28, 2018) Despite extensive efforts in 2018 to restrain rowdy recklessness at annual automobile and motorcycle gatherings, Ocean City officials want increased law enforcement assistance for 2019.
Looking to address behavior problems related to car events in 2017, especially during the unsanctioned H2O International event, the city formed a Motor Events Task Force in December of that year to determine a course to take.
The task force conversation quickly focused on reducing the throngs of spectators who line Coastal Highway during its second meeting in mid-January.
Jim Knapp, National Street Rod Association division director and 37-year member, noted whenever sidewalks are packed with spectators bent on inciting high-horsepower vehicles to engage in reckless behavior, disaster is on the horizon.
Knapp also suggested hotels and condominium buildings could focus on monitoring their parking lots for unauthorized vehicles to discourage spectator congregation.
“I think 95 percent of businesses will buy into it,” he said. “Most people want the events to be here, but they don’t want trouble.”
At the task force inaugural meeting in Dec. 2017, G. Hale Harrison, of Harrison Group Resort Hotels, suggested lobbying Annapolis legislators for amended legal solutions.
In January, Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro reported that state legislators were formulating a bill to allow jurisdictions to establish temporary special event zones, where much stiffer penalties for motor vehicle violations could be imposed.
At the same meeting Cruisin’ event organizers with TEAM Productions reviewed plans for a host of associated activities, including concerts at the Performing Arts Center and rev-it-up fun at the U.S. 13 Dragway in Delmar.
Buzzuro said at that point any plans to stage a H2O International car rally in 2018 were unknown, noting despite a last-minute cancellation in 2017 the unsanctioned end-of-summer event still drew thousands, many which seemed intent on being disruptive.
“I think they come here for one reason – to cause havoc in the town of Ocean City,” he said. “There is very little redeeming value with this group and how they conduct themselves. The vast majority of those motorists are just here to violate the law.”
In February, Sen. Jim Mathias (D-38) introduced Senate Bill 872 to authorize the State Highway Administration to designate roadways under its purview as special event zones to allow for reduced speed limits and increased penalties.
The bill sought to prohibit reckless driving, racing, burning rubber and making too much noise in designated areas where pedestrians gather near highways. First-time violators would be fined up to $1,000 and face up to one year in jail, with a potential two years of incarceration for subsequent offenses.
In March, Ocean City leaders converged on Annapolis to testify before several General Assembly committees, with Mayor Rick Meehan characterizing the bill as an attempt to discourage attendees, “that come to Ocean City for all the wrong reasons to not come at all.”
Delegate Mary Beth Carozza (D-38C) co-sponsored corresponding legislation, HB1406, and testified before the House Environment and Transportation Committee to the need for enhanced penalty structures.
TEAM Productions Bob Rothermel, who organizes the Cruisin’ events, testified before the house committee that social media feedback indicated that most registered participants supported the proposed legislation.
In April, the bills’ original text was amended by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to localize the bill to Worcester County and to modify its schedule of fines.
The initial bill language included fines of up to $5,000 and potential jail time if a pedestrian was injured, but the amended measure reduced the fine to a maximum of $1,000.
Also changed was the definition of “special event,” which was limited to motor vehicle events occurring in close proximity to a highway authorized by local jurisdictions or those with anticipated attendance of at least 1,000 spectators.
The legislation passed the Senate 46-0 in mid-March, before clearing the House and being signed by Gov. Larry Hogan in April as an emergency bill to permit immediate implementation.
Later that month, the H2O International car rally announced its 2018 event would be relocated to Atlantic City, New Jersey.
During the Motor Event Task Force meeting in late April, Meehan said H2Oi promoter Jay Shoup has signed a contract with the Showboat Hotel for October.
Buzzuro said preliminary meetings with held the State Highway Administration and Ocean City Public Works to coordinate the newly created special event zones.
“It will be all of Ocean City, but with an emphasis on Coastal Highway from 33rd to 62nd Street as top priority, as well as locations on the top end [of town],” he said. “I’m not going to give everything away, but we’re going to have locations that we have identified to be problematic.”
Buzzuro said special event zones would be established starting on Tuesday May 15 until Sunday May 20, with speed limits lowered to 30 mph.
In the end, Mother Nature tossed a curveball at the 28th annual Cruisin’ Ocean City, when in addition to heightened speed enforcement, soggy conditions made for a relatively quiet and uneventful weekend.
OCPD made 44 arrests between Thursday and Sunday, with 26 occurring on Saturday after damp skies finally cleared. Last May 53 arrests were made during Cruisin’, with 40 arrests in 2016 and 54 arrests in 2015. There were also half dozen DUI arrests, a small increase over the four incidents in 2017, but both significantly lower than the 11 cases in 2015.
Traffic citations totaled 467, about a hundred fewer than the 568 written during Cruisin’ Ocean City in 2017.
Looking ahead, Buzzuro said the city would institute special event zones for the H2O International and Endless Summer Cruisin in the fall, but to this point were not including OC Bikefest.
“There’s nothing we’ve seen that would necessitate establishing a special event zone for Bike Week,” he said.
During OC BikeFest in mid-September, Mother Nature threw another curve, with Hurricane Florence looming close enough to discourage thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts from visiting the shore.
Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, said uncertain weather forecasts and Gov. Larry Hogan’s declared state of emergency, which reflected the possibility of extreme rainfall and flooding elsewhere in the state, caused many bikers to rethink their travel plans.
“It was not a complete washout, but not what we’ve come to love with a solid bike weekend,” she said. “Going into Tuesday, once the state of emergency was announced, we saw a lot of cancellations.”
OC BikeFest and Delmarva Bike Week organizer Chase Micheal said the event’s usual attendance is about 150,000 people.
“In my estimate, based on concert tickets sold, we were about a quarter of the crowd we would normally see,” he said. “The weather forecast is certainly something I’ve never … experienced in my life.”
Although the official H2Oi event relocated to Atlantic City, in late-September Ocean City braced, not for extreme weather, but potentially extreme behavior with the highly predicted onslaught of the tuner car armada.
Fueled by social-media protestations, tuner car fans showed up by the droves, but instead of soggy weather were met by a highly focused law enforcement presence.
OCPD and an array of allied agencies, armed with the new Special Event Zone law that dropped speed limits to 30 mph and significantly increased fines, set a five-year high in tickets written over the four-day weekend, with a significantly reduced number of warnings issued.
In total 1,280 traffic citations were issued, shattering the previous high of 858 last year, while the number of accidents fell from 28 last year to 16 this year.
Two of the more extreme crashes were captured on video and widely shared on social media.
Buzzuro said, as in previous years, disorderly and disruptive behavior was not in short supply
“Moving forward, we will take a close look at the weekend and evaluate what changes need to be made to help us in the future, including future attempts to bolster the special event zone legislation even more,” he said.
By comparison, the 21st annual Endless Summer Cruisin’ the following weekend was a relatively peaceful affair.
OCPD reported 433 traffic citations were issued, a five-year high for Endless Summer Cruisin’, which saw 403 tickets issued the prior year.
On the flip side, traffic warnings dropped from a five-year high of 592 in 2015 to 377 this year. Overall traffic stops hit 485 this year versus the 577 detained last October.
Even so, resort officials believe more can be done, and will ask the General Assembly for more help when it reconvenes in January.