Article published Mar 11, 2007
Alcoa police crack down on traffic violators

By Anna C. Irwin
of The Daily Times Staff

Speeders, tailgaters, and other drivers who ignore the law are more likely than ever to be cited to court for traffic violations in Alcoa.

Alcoa Police Chief Ken Burge said officers are focusing on traffic enforcement in an effort to save lives.

"We want our volunteer police chaplains in their churches, not delivering death notifications," Burge said. "We've had four traffic fatalities already this year, and we're trying to prevent accidents, especially those that might cause more deaths."

Capt. Rick Arnold who oversees Alcoa's Patrol Division said the number of traffic citations issued in the first two months of 2007 is almost double the number issued in the same time period last year. There have been 1,647 citations issued this year compared to 960 citations issued between Jan. 1 and March 1, 2006.

"I'd like to put up billboards saying 'Drive Smart' on Alcoa Highway, Pellissippi Parkway, Hunt Road, all over the city," Arnold said. "That's all we need for people to drive smarter."

Smart drivers obey the law and avoid being cited to court for a traffic violation. They avoid the expense of paying a fine and costs and avoid the consequences of having moving violations on their driving records, especially higher insurance rates.

Most importantly, they avoid accidents.

"If everybody obeyed the law, we'd have no tickets and no wrecks except for those resulting from mechanical problems," Burge said.

Arnold said analysis of traffic accident records show the leading factors contributing to accidents in the city are failure to yield the right of way and following too closely.

Thirty-four drivers have been cited with following too closely in January and February. Thirty-one failure to yield citations had been issued as of March 1.

Arnold said most of the citations for these two offenses came after accidents. Officers investigated 99 accidents in January, two of them fatal and 15 more with injuries. They investigated 87 crashes in February. There were two more fatal accidents and 13 accidents with injury.

Only 65 accidents were investigated in January 2006, nine with injuries, and 83 in February, six with injuries. The city had no traffic fatalities in 2006.

"Our officers are doing a better job of writing tickets at wrecks," Arnold said. "Sometimes a citation will get someone's attention when nothing else has."

Arnold said the city uses its SMART unit, an electronic speed monitor, to try to increase driver awareness. The unit, which looks like an electronic sign, is set up beside a street or highway to check and display the speed of an approaching vehicle.

"Sometimes that's all it takes," Arnold said. "After we've had the SMART unit in a particular location, people slow down at least for a while."

Speeding is one of the most frequent reasons people are given traffic citations in Alcoa. The number of speeding tickets issued in the first two months of 2007 almost matched the 2006 number. There were 307 citations for speeding in January and February 2007 and 305 in the same period last year.

Fifty-seven speeding citations in 2007 were for traveling 1 mph to 15 mph over the speed limit and 94 went to drivers going 16 mph to 19 mph over the limit. Officers clocked and cited 111 speeders traveling 25 to 29 mph over the posted limit, and 10 drivers were pulled over for speeds 30 or more miles per hour over the limit.

Seventeen drivers have been cited this year for speeding in a school zone, most of them traveling 1 to 15 mph over the limit, but one was charged with speeding 20 to 24 mph over the school zone limit.

"All our cars are equipped with radar and four of our officers are certified in laser devices to measure speed," Arnold said. "We have two hand-held laser units and will be getting two more with a Governor's Highway Safety grant. They are especially effective for motor units (motorcycle officers)."

"We expect the number of speeding tickets issued to increase," Arnold said.

Four of the city's newer officers are not certified in the use of radar but soon will complete a radar school. Warmer weather will allow the use of motorcycles. Those two factors will increase the city's already intensified level of traffic enforcement.Seat belt violations
Changes in the law have added to the number of traffic citations issued by Alcoa officers. Violation of the seat belt law has become a primary offense, allowing officers to make traffic stops if seat belts are not in use.

Only 109 drivers were cited with violation of the seat belt law in January and February of 2006. In the same period this year, 249 seat belt citations were issued. Six of those were for second offense violations of the law.

Eighty citations were issued by Alcoa officers and six arrests made in a single evening the Feb. 23 WASP event. WASP or Wide Area Saturation Patrol involves multiple officers focused on traffic enforcement. The Feb. 23 event was a cooperative effort with the Maryville Police Department and the Blount County Sheriff's Office. Officers from each agency were out in force between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. that evening.

Arnold said WASP operations are planned at least once a month as another way of getting the attention of drivers and encouraging them to obey traffic laws.

"We're trying a lot of things traffic safety classes at the high school, speaking to community groups anything that will get people to drive smart," Arnold said.

Part of the expense of the intensified enforcement effort is covered by the Alcoa Police Department's budget and a portion through grants.

"Writing tickets generates some revenue but not enough to offset the expense of our enforcement efforts," Arnold said.Alcoa Municipal Court
Melanie Waters, an Alcoa Municipal Court clerk, said fines vary with violation and how the cited driver decides to address the issue. For example, paying the fine and costs for most offenses prior to the scheduled court date will save the $13.75 litigation tax collected by the state on each case that goes to court.

Waters said some or all of the fines collected are forwarded to the state. She said the maximum fine imposed for traffic offenses is $50 per offense but could be far less. An example of the division of the proceeds would be the $10 fine for a first offense seat belt violation $9.50 to the state and 50 cents to the city.

Municipal Judge Allen Bray will likely dismiss a citation for failure to provide proof of insurance if the driver comes to court with proof in hand. Other offenses may be more difficult to resolve.

Those who don't pay ahead of their court dates or appear in court as scheduled face an additional $50 fee for failure to appear. Those who don't appear on traffic offenses face the possibility of having their driver's license suspended. Driving on a suspended license could result in arrest, posting a bond or waiting in jail for a hearing, hiring an attorney and other expenses.

"Our officers don't enjoy issuing citations, but they all want safe streets and highways in Alcoa," Arnold said. "For most of them, the greatest motivation for writing tickets is that they don't like working wrecks. They don't like the paperwork, and they especially don't like seeing people hurt or killed.

"We don't write the laws. We just enforce them," Arnold said. "There are far more violations than those we can see and enforce. That's why we want everybody to drive smarter."