Judge cracks whip on local speeders
More than 1,000 drivers see licenses revoked in Pittsburg area in 2006
By Rowena Coetsee, MEDIANEWS STAFF
Article Last Updated: 02/14/2007 02:32:19 AM PST
PITTSBURG — Jim Hughes accepted the bad news calmly, but inwardly he was smarting from the unexpected bruising he had just received in traffic court.
"I find it real unfair," said the 32-year-old Pittsburg man after learning that he'd lost his driver's license for 10 days.
After all, he only was doing 89 mph on Highway 4 to escape a driver who was coming up fast behind him, Hughes said.
With a mortgage, car payments and a family to support, he can't afford to stay at home, so his girlfriend probably will be the one chauffeuring him to his carpenter's job in San Ramon by 6 a.m.
Hughes is only one in a string of unlucky drivers to have the California Vehicle Code book thrown at them in Pittsburg's Superior Court, where Commissioner Lowell Richards last month began leaning even harder on those caught speeding.
Fines alone weren't working even though they can run as much as $711 on a first offense.
Fed up with the steady stream of speeding cases through his courtroom, Richards in 2006 had started suspending licenses for 30 days if drivers were ticketed for going 25 mph or more over the speed limit.
Up until then he says he and the other commissioners only suspended driver's licenses occasionally and even then only when the individual had committed multiple traffic violations.
But last year Richards clamped down, temporarily grounding more than 1,000 individuals.
Even that didn't motivate as many drivers to mend their ways
as he had hoped, however.
"I had hoped the word would get out, but it doesn't seem to have changed much," he said.
Officer Reny Sunga of the California Highway Patrol has the same impression of East Contra Costa County.
"The speeds are still there," said the motorcycle officer, who thinks as just many people are going as fast as they ever did.
And so Richards reluctantly decided to tighten the screws.
"I'd rather not have to do this, but people out here are going to have to help me," the 69-year-old judge said.
He's not interested in punishing, per se, Richards says; he just wants drivers to understand the seriousness of their actions.
His demeanor on the bench suggests that he's sincere: Richards exudes a warmth that belies the poker-faced and aloof persona often ascribed to judges.
But underlying Richards' friendly tone is an unmistakable firmness that lets defendants know he means business.
Over the course of one week last month he ordered 14
10-day suspensions in addition to the 33 driver's licenses he yanked for 30 days.
Richards is the first of the county's four commissioners to order 10-day suspensions for those found guilty of driving
20 to 24 mph over the limit.
"What kills out here is the difference in speed between those who are obeying the law and those who aren't," Richards said, noting that the faster one drives, the longer it takes to stop and the harder it is for tires to grip the road.
Based on what his counterparts have told him about their caseloads, he's convinced that speeding is a significantly bigger problem here than in other parts of the county — not just in terms of the number of people ignoring speed limits, but how fast they're driving.
"People get so focused on what they're doing they don't pay attention to their speedometer," said Antioch police officer Joe Zanarini, noting that several speeding vehicles nearly hit him while he was processing an accident scene last month on James Donlon Boulevard even though his patrol car's emergency lights were flashing.
"You've got so many people in East County, and everybody is in a hurry," said Zanarini, who easily writes 20 or more speeding tickets on days he's working in traffic enforcement.