MAXWELL:  No pity for speeders caught in “traps’

3/13/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


An old woman happens upon an injured cobra. She brings the reptile to home and nurses it back to health. One day, it bites her. With her dying breath, she asks: “Why did you bite me after all I did for you?” The unrepentant snake replies: “Hey, lady, you knew I was a cobra before you brought me home.”

How does this story relate to the infamous “speed trap” controversy that continues to embroil the North Central Florida towns of Waldo and Lawtey, you ask? Well, like the old woman who brings home a deadly cobra and dies because of her action, motorists who speed through these internationally known speed traps are dumb.

Supported by the giant AAA Auto Club lobby, big-city state lawmakers are trying to push through legislation to discourage Waldo and Lawtey, each with six police officers and about 900 residents, from writing so many speeding tickets. St. Petersburg’s own Sen. Jim Sebesta, a Republican, is the latest AAA shill. Sebesta’s measure, aimed squarely at Waldo and Lawtey, would prevent cities from using traffic fines to make up more than a quarter of their annual budgets. The bill will not stop municipalities from writing tickets, but it would force officials to send any excessive ticket revenue to the state.

Brooksville Republican David Russell, who is the House transportation chairman, also a front man for AAA, tried and failed to get a similar bill passed recently.

Every weekday for a year, I drove through Waldo to Florida State Prison, where I taught English and reading for the prison school. During that time, I never got a speeding ticket, only one warning accompanied by a stern lecture. In each direction, I saw foolish motorists pulled to the side of Waldo Road and U.S. 301 for speeding.

How could that be when people know that speeding in these parts will get you a citation? Here, let me give my definition of a speed trap: It is a place where bad cops and officials intentionally create a situation in which motorists are somehow misled or when a piece of geography causes motorists to violate the speed limit. If, for example, a significantly slower speed limit is at the bottom of a steep incline than at the top, then the cops are playing fast and loose. Speed trap.

But when signs are clearly posted and when markings are on the asphalt itself warning motorists to reduce speed, the ticket-writing officers are not the bad guys. The bad guys are dumb drivers who refuse to obey or do not pay attention. I know of what I write. I was in Waldo and Lawtey recently for the expressed purpose of observing traffic. I saw dozens of cars zoom through.

In addition to being a busy thoroughfare, U.S. 301 is Waldo’s main drag, serving as a crossing point for elementary students walking to school, older people fetching their mail, Amtrak passengers driving to and from the station, customers shopping at the convenience store.

When Waldo and Lawtey are at issue, the AAA is a hypocrite. It claims that it promotes auto safety. But the giant agency uses its lobbying muscle and popularity among politicians to aid in endangering lives in these small towns. The agency should be ashamed. The initials _ AAA _ should stand for Aiding and Abetting Accidents with regard to Waldo and Lawtey.

These towns are the only two in the country that AAA labels as speed traps, and they are portrayed as an embarrassment to Florida. Of Waldo and Lawtey, Kevin Bakewell, senior vice president of Tampa-based AAA Auto Club South, told the Gainesville Sun: “Writing tickets is not the way we want to get money from tourists.” Waldo and Lawtey officials do not want their residents paying hospital bills or burial costs for the menace of speeding motorists.

In response to Bakewell’s comments and Sebesta’s bill, Lawtey Police Chief M.M. Jordan said: “The money is not the issue. They’re not going to tell us who to write tickets to and who not to write tickets to. They’re not going to tell us not to enforce the law. It’s there and we’re going to enforce it.”

Waldo Police Chief A.W. Smith called AAA officials “bullies” who try to manhandle small towns. I agree. “We don’t write enough tickets,” he said. He told the Sun he dislikes writing tickets. In fact, he has tried all the other methods of slowing traffic, from parking cruisers in highly visible spots to putting mannequins in marked police cars.

Six-million vehicles pass through Waldo and Lawtey annually on U.S. 301, while another 4.5-million travel through Waldo on Waldo Road. These are stunning numbers of vehicles _ many of them speeding _ to use the main streets of these two small towns. The AAA should be backing Waldo and Lawtey, not fighting them. Anyway, the signs are clearly posted. No one has an excuse for bringing home a deadly cobra.