After last year’s lockdown it’s great to once again gather with family for the holidays. Some will be traveling “over the river and thru the woods to grandmother’s house.” During the holidays our already crowded and inadequately maintained roads will be strained, especially since speeding has surged in our state.
Burt Reynolds’ stunt driving in the movie Smokey and the Bandit doesn’t hold a candle to some of the drivers we’ve encountered. Picture Interstate 40 on a Friday afternoon in what has to be described as heavy traffic. I’m driving my usual “9 and under” on the 70 mile an hour road when I suddenly see, in my rearview mirror, not one, but two cars bobbing and weaving, racing to pass everyone. There’s more space between a burger and the bun on a Big Mac than when these cars recklessly wedge themselves between cars. Liken it to parallel parking at 85 miles an hour.
Either these guys (and I suspect they were male drivers) had a death wish or there was a pot of gold waiting them if they arrived at a prescribed destination by a certain time in one piece. But they were scaring the bejesus out of the rest of us. And this was not an isolated experience, as I’m sure you probably know.
We live in an age of rage and I suspect that’s about as good a explanation as you can find for some of the outrageous conduct we encounter on our roads. The North Carolina Highway Patrol reports they’ve already arrested more extreme speeders through the end of October - 47,368 - than in the whole year 2020. Extreme speeding is defined as driving 25 or more miles per hour over the posted speed limit. The Charlotte Observer recently released an investigative study showing that speeding enforcement over the past decade actually declined, despite the fact that our state gained more than 100,000 residents during the period.
Part of the decline is due to a shortage of as many 200 troopers in the number of State Highway Patrol officers. We have about 1,400 sworn officers to cover 10.6 million citizens in the 53,821 square miles of our state. Some of the shortage can be explained by retirements, but pay is also a factor. Starting pay is $37,300 and the average trooper salary is $50,686 for a job that has exacting standards, long hours and is increasingly dangerous. All law enforcement agencies in our state are having increased difficulty getting men and women to wear the uniform. We need to pay more for those protecting us from harm’s way.
Another reason for increased speeding is that speeders get off too easy. It begins with overcrowded district court dockets and overworked district attorneys. It is too easy to get a charge reduced or dismissed outright. Even repeat offenders can pay a lawyer as little as $99 and get the violation, and the resultant increased insurance premiums, reduced to an “improper equipment” dismissal or Prayer for Judgement, which is unique to our state. Bottom line: this experience, which should teach you not to disobey speed laws, actually becomes a de facto permission slip for doing it again.
It’s obvious we need to make our roads safer, and the best way to accomplish this is for stricter penalties. Let’s change driving laws to greatly increase fines for first offenders and automatic loss of license for repeated offenders. Maybe having to Uber to work will be incentive enough to drive more prudently. Of the 1,400 road deaths this year about one-in-four is the result of speeding.
As Sergeant Chris Knox, spokesman for the Highway Patrol, said, “By stopping that person [a speeder], we know we may have just saved that person’s life. And we may also have saved the life of someone down the road.”
The message we hear every holiday is, “Drive to arrive alive.” It’s worth heeding.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 ½ years. Contact him at email@example.com