Drifting is an exciting and dangerous type of driving, but it is also very illegal when done on public roads – and even private parking lots.
What does drifting mean? Is drifting illegal? Where can you legally drift? I get these kinds of questions all the time (mostly from friends who aren’t really into the car scene), so I figured it might be fun and educational to break it down into the simplest terms possible:
- First of all, drifting is illegal on public roads pretty much everywhere.
- Drifting in abandoned / private parking lots is as illegal as it is on public roads.
- The penalties for breaking drifting laws vary by state and locality, but drifting has been an issue of contention between law enforcement officials and enthusiasts for years.
- Drifting on public roads has never has been legal, and it never will be.
Now with that out of the way, let’s dig into the details:
What is drifting?
Drifting is a type of maneuver where the driver intentionally oversteers to cause loss of traction on the rear wheels or tires (commonly known as “oversteer”), while maintaining control from entry to exit of a corner.
It sounds complicated, but if done correctly, it’s actually a lot of fun. It’s really difficult to do cleanly as well. I still haven’t been able to figure it out completely.
The most optimal vehicles for drifting are either rear wheel drive (a drivetrain more likely to lose traction on those surfaces) or all wheel drive. Drifting front wheel drive cars is possible, but not as easy – it just requires more skill and better car setup.
Is drifting dangerous?
Drifting can be very dangerous, especially on public roads, which is the primary reason why it’s illegal. Drifting, like any other type of racing or high-performance driving, is best suited to be performed in a controlled environment.
Even drifting on a race track is dangerous – as drifting is a type of performance driving, it is very easy for inexperienced drifters to overestimate their skills and lose control.
It’s also extremely common for experienced drivers to crash, which is one of the reasons why it’s more exciting to watch than other types of racing.
Crashing a car hurts (both the soul and the body) – no matter if you do it on the street or on the track. You’re less likely to get injured drifting on a track due to it being a more open environment with less objects to crash into. And since nearly all racetracks require drivers to wear full protective gear (helmets, gloves, racing suit, etc), the chances of getting hurt are less.
Why is drifting illegal?
Drifting requires substantial vehicle modification for optimal performance, and drivers must possess both excellent spatial awareness and rapid reflexes. However, drifting has been described as “a high-risk activity” because if done incorrectly, or in an unsafe environment, it can easily result in deadly (and costly) accidents. Not only to yourself, but anyone else in the immediate vicinity.
Drifting is a violation of traffic laws in most states. The danger drifting presents on public roads is likely the main reason drifting is illegal.
What happens if you get caught drifting on public roads?
Anyone who gets caught drifting on public roads is usually charged with reckless driving, speeding, or street racing (sometimes all three). You’ll get points added to your license, and once you rack up enough of them, you risk losing your license altogether.
Because drifting is often mistaken for street racing (even though drifting and street racing are two entirely different things), drifting also has the potential to earn you a charge of street racing – which comes with very severe fines.
For example, law enforcement officials here in California have the right to impound the vehicles of any driver caught street racing. Depending on the severity of the charges, those cars can (and often do) end up being confiscated by the state and/or destroyed.
Where can you legally drift?
There’s really no excuse for drifting illegally on public roads, as drifting competitions are frequently held at state fairs, drifting competitions, or other racing events.
Drifting can be done legally on race tracks throughout the US. If you want to start drifting competitively or recreationally, your best bet is to get a drifting license from your local drifting association. I recommend getting a Formula Drift Pro AM license, which will allow you to compete in a wide variety of races (and eventually go “pro” if you’re good enough).
If there are no drifting events in your area, consider participating in an autocross event (which are run by the Sports Car Club of America). These events are common nearly everywhere in the US, so the one nearest to you shouldn’t be all that difficult to find.
Although you’ll probably get kicked off the track for drifting through every corner, it’s a great way to learn car control and how to correct a power slide.
Can you get in trouble for drifting in private parking lots?
Sorry, but drifting in a parking lot of an abandoned building isn’t legal either. If it leads to injury of another person (or damage to property), you can be charged with reckless endangerment – which results in fines (or even jail time).