Speed Kills (Your Wallet) 

The sneaky war on American motorists

NEW YORK—It was a beautiful afternoon in early autumn, and for an instant, I mistook the brightly colored lights flashing in my rearview mirror for streaks of sunlight filtering through gently turning leaves. But only for an instant. Just past a curve on a steady downgrade, a sign announced the end of the 55 mph state speed limit and the beginning of the town's 40 mph zone. I hit the brakes but it was too late. That's the purpose of a speed trap. Sixty-two in a 40, the policeman said.

Speeding tickets have always been a pain in the butt. You pay about $150, and if your insurance company chooses to be mean, it uses the three fresh points on your license to justify a rate hike. In a recent legal transformation that has quietly gathered steam across the United States, however, getting caught speeding has become far more traumatic.

A year before the incident related above, a state trooper had plucked me out of a cluster of vehicles on the Long Island Expressway, dinging me for 72 in a 55 (heavy volume had slowed traffic from its typical average of 80). That earned me a $185 fine plus six points—a point hike up from the long-standing three. A few months later, the Department of Motor Vehicles sent me a letter notifying me that I owed an additional $300—bringing the total fine to $485—for a "driver responsibility assessment." The 2004 law establishing the additional fees was passed in greater secrecy than the USA Patriot Act; even this devourer of three newspapers a day hadn't heard of it.

My second ticket brought another letter billing me a second $300 driver responsibility assessment. But if I had plead guilty, New York would suspend my license for hitting the 12-point limit. I hired an attorney.

I spent eight months and more than $2,000 fighting the ticket in municipal court. My lawyers—I needed two—kept filing motions to delay my trial date until my cop would be away on vacation. Finally, the judge asked my attorneys what it would take to get my case off her docket. A deal was cut. I paid $850 in fines, plus the state assessment, and performed 25 hours of community service. I was allowed to pick between sorting trash at the recycling center and filing at the zoning board. You can guess which one I chose.

Final tally for two speeding tickets: $3,935. No wonder so many people drive around with suspended licenses! They can't afford the fines.

It helps to be a drug addict. When the 24-year-old son of President Gore got pulled over doing over 100 mph south of Los Angeles on July 4, cops found pot and controlled pharmaceuticals—Vicodin, Xanax, Valium, Adderall and Soma—aboard his Prius. "He didn't have a prescription for any of those drugs," said Orange County Sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino. Sentence: 90 days at a Malibu rehab clinic. If Al Gore III finishes the program, his arrest record will vanish—even though he has previous arrests for drugs and a DUI. "He had recently smoked marijuana, but it did not impair him enough that he was driving under the influence," said Amormino. Gore's fine: zero.

Michigan charges $1,000 over the fine amount for driving 20 mph over the legal limit. New Jersey raises $130 million a year through supplemental state fines. Texas cashes in to the tune of $300 million. Other states, including Florida, are considering similar laws. The War on Speederists has reached its fastest boil in Virginia, where the extra fines can run over $2,500. Exceeding the posted speed limit by 20 mph, for example, earns motorists a $200 fine plus a $1,050 "civil remedial fee." In addition, reports the Washington Post, "drivers with points on their licenses—a speeding ticket usually earns four points—will be hit for $75 for every point above eight and $100 for having that many points in the first place."

State legislators who sponsored Virginia's stiff new penalties say they're out to make the roads safer, but admit that their main objective is funding highway repairs. "My job as a delegate is to make people slow down and build some roads," said David Albo, a Republican state representative.

It isn't just budget-mad Americans. Even the land of Mad Max and the Tasmanian Devil is getting tough on speeders.

"Many people seem to believe that driving 5, 10 or even 15 kilometers per hour [3, 6 or 9 mph] over the limit is acceptable," says Jim Cox, infrastructure minister for the Australian province of Tasmania. "For a pedestrian hit by a car, an additional [3 mph] can literally mean the difference between life and death." Fines for speeding will be raised by 300 percent.

OK, so speed kills. But when zealots like Cox say things like this—"research shows that even a 1 km/hr [six-tenths of 1 mph] reduction in speed can result in a 3 percent reduction in crashes"—you've got to wonder whether he's been smoking too much eucalyptus.

Virginia courts are bracing for an onslaught of angry drivers forced to fight their tickets. "For someone who's living near the poverty line, or even making $30,000," said Fairfax attorney Todd G. Petit, draconian fees of over $1,000 have "a significant impact" that could lead to them losing their license and job. "It's basically the Lawyer Full Employment Act," chortled another happy member of the bar.

My friends have learned from my experience. Since every violation brings you a single ticket away from license revocation, challenging them in court is the smart way to go.

No one marches to demand a health-care system as good as Mexico's, but sky-high speeding fines have awakened America's long-dormant spirit of rebellion. Virginia legislators say their offices have been "deluged by angry calls and e-mail from constituents threatening to vote them out of office." Robert Marshall, a Republican delegate says: "You have no idea how angry people are." Who knows? Maybe people will begin protesting the Iraq War.

Though the correlation between speeding and highway fatality rates is well established, fining speeders more than drugged drivers is disproportionate to the social impact of the offense. On the other hand, there's no denying the deterrent effect. I pay a lot more attention to speed limit signs.

Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.

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