Speeders Get Off Easy, Make N.C. Roads More Dangerous

May 15, 2007

Speed-related crashes kill about 10 people a week in North Carolina, more than are killed in accidents involving alcohol, according to the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center.

Yet lawmakers and court officials aren’t hard on speeders while getting tough on drunken drivers. There are loopholes in laws targeting speeders, and traffic courts are so crowded that prosecutors and judges often give up, according to a review of records by The News & Observer of Raleigh.

More than half a million speeders – almost 80 percent of them – are not convicted as charged or otherwise get off easy.

Only 2.4 percent of people accused of driving above 55 mph and more than 15 miles over the limit were convicted as charged, the newspaper reported Sunday.

Despite efforts by state troopers to stop more drivers for speeding, speed-related deaths investigated by the patrol last year went up 23 percent.

“We believe, consistently now, that speed is coming out as our number one cause of fatalities and collisions,” said Col. W. Fletcher Clay, the state Highway Patrol commander.

One problem is that repeat speeders are often let back on the road, the newspaper reported.

For example, Nancy Moseley had been caught driving too fast eight times since 2001. Her lawyer was able to cut a deal almost every time so she could keep driving.

Moseley lost the right to drive when she was charged with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle after a head-on accident last summer in Southport that killed 76-year-old Joe Williams. Moseley had been driving 60 mph in a 45 mph zone.

“She should never have been on the road in the first place,” said Ann Williams, Joe’s widow.

In all but one of Moseley’s previous speeding cases, a lawyer negotiated with the prosecutor or judge to have charges dismissed or lowered. They twice allowed her to blame a broken speedometer on the offense.

Another issue is the increasing numbers of drivers who travel at higher speeds. The number of speeders caught driving 100 mph or more increased by 79 percent from 2000 to 2006, the newspaper reported.

“They go so fast the light poles look like a pair of corduroy breeches,” said Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, talking in particular about drivers on Interstates 40 and 540, as well as the U.S. 64/264 Knightdale bypass.

Willoughby said judges have given big breaks to drivers caught going 100 mph or more despite his efforts to try to take away their licenses.

Only 19 percent of drivers who got tickets for driving 100 mph or more last year were convicted as charged.

Clay said all the Highway Patrol can do is keep issuing tickets.

“We make it clear to troopers, ‘Your job is to take enforcement action on clear-cut violations of the law,”’ he said. “Our job is not to manage the court system.”

Ralph A. Walker, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said perhaps judges and district attorneys are applying the laws unevenly because they are elected.

“We can point out statistics to these elected officials and the legislature – but you know, at that point, it’s up to the judges, the DAs, to adjust their policies, or the legislature to mandate a change in administration of the traffic laws,” he said.

And while North Carolina residents have been exposed to well-publicized, sustained campaigns targeting drunken driving and seat-belt use, there has been no similar campaign against speeding.

“We really have kind of limited funds when it comes to speed,” said Darrell Jernigan, director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. The agency spent about $1.3 million on the seat-belt and drunken driving campaigns last fiscal year but spent only $21,000 on a program to reduce speed.

“Our pots of money that come from the federal government are specific – child passenger safety, occupant protection, seat-belts … booze,” he said.

Information from: The News & Observer,

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