County drivers may have paid for incorrect speed limit sign
By Howard Roden
PORTER – Retha Gadus was driving her son to school the morning of May 28 when she was pulled over by a Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office deputy and ticketed for speeding on FM 1314 just east of Sorters Road.
But for her husband Joe, a retired Houston Police Department officer with knowledge of traffic enforcement, it might have just been one more in thousands of traffic tickets issued every year in Montgomery County.
Instead, Mrs. Gadus’ ticket lead to the discovery of a mistake in the accuracy of a speed limit sign that could call into question the validity of numerous other traffic tickets issued in that particular section of FM 1314.
Mr. Gadus now wonders how many other drivers were cited along that section of state highway.
Retha Gadus got her ticket for going 55 mph in a 40 mph zone. But when Gadus phoned her husband Joe, she claimed never to have seen the speed limit sign because 18-wheelers parked on the highway shoulder blocked her view of the sign.
“My first thought was, ‘Yeah, right,’” said Joe Gadus. “She’d never had a speeding ticket in her life. I figured she’d have to take defensive driving.”
At his wife’s insistence, Joe Gadus visited the location and verified her contention. But while at the intersection, something else grabbed his attention: There was a 50 mph speed limit sign on the eastbound lanes just prior to the intersection and a 40 mph sign just past Sorters Road.
The distance between the speed zones, Joe Gadus contends, was less than the minimum mandated by the Texas Department of Transportation.
“You cannot logically increase your speed to 50 and then reduce it in sufficient time to 40. You can only go 50 for about two seconds.
“There was something wrong here. That’s what got my attention,” he said.
Inquiries with TxDOT and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office launched Gadus on a pursuit of his own. Through his research of TxDOT documents and e-mails, he discovered TxDOT officials had failed – for a period of almost a year – to correct the speed limit discrepancy east of FM 1314.
Gadus says TxDOT replaced the 40 mph signs with the correct 50 mph signs several days after he notified the state agency of the problem. However, he wonders how many drivers received speeding tickets and paid unnecessary court fines or spent money to attend defensive driving courses that weren’t need.
“The citizens are the ones who suffer because of it,” said Gadus, a Porter resident. “There’s not only fines and court costs; there could be increased insurance costs.
“It’s all unnecessary.”
Having received the information compiled by Gadus, First Assistant District Attorney Phil Grant has instructed prosecutors in the court of Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace James Metts to “look carefully” at speeding cases involving that specific stretch of FM 1314.
“If people were improperly ticketed, we’re certainly going to dismiss those cases,” Grant said. “This isn’t to say everybody is going to have their ticket dismissed. The prosecutors will make the evaluation.”
Grant said he received supporting documents from Gadus a couple of weeks ago. Gadus, who retired from HPD seven years ago, spent some of his nearly 30-year career in traffic enforcement.
“It was clear he was correct,” Grant said. “He was diligent in his research. Good for him. I certainly appreciate that.”
Grant said he had no idea how many speeding tickets would qualify for dismissal. “It could be a few or it could be many,” he said. Gadus believes it could be in the hundreds, but Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Dan Norris said deputies have handed out 1,119 speeding citations along FM 13-14 from the Conroe city limit to U.S. 59 in Porter from Oct. 1 to the end of May as part of the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program.
Norris said selection of FM 1314 for inclusion in the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP) was based on various criteria, including high traffic volume and crash data.
“A lot of times we get input from deputies on the street,” he said.
While Gadus doesn’t believe the speed limit snafu was designed for “monetary gain,” he said he told MCSO Patrol Capt. Ken Ariola that it had all “the earmarks” of a speed trap. Gadus said he asked Ariola to investigate the area to see if the signs are correct.
“If they weren’t, I asked them (MCSO) to join us in a motion to dismiss with the prosecutor’s office,” Gadus said. “He (Ariola) told me he wasn’t going to dismiss any tickles and that his officer (who stopped Gadus’ wife) was out there because his salary was paid by a federal grant.”
Ariola said the Sheriff’s Office contacted TxDOT, which verified the error. Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel said he informed Gadus that the proper speed limit signs had been installed.
Raquelle Lewis, public information officer with TxDOT’s district office in Houston, acknowledged that, on at least two occasions in 2008, maintenance employees stated the proper speed limit signs had been posted, when, in fact, they had not.
“We are looking into how that could have happened,” she said. “We had documentation that corrections needed to be made and there was documentation that the corrections were made.
“Without a doubt we have an error. The (proper) signs were not posted,” she said.
TxDOT e-mails Gadus obtained through the Texas Open Records Act show that Montgomery Area Maintenance Supervisor Delbert Aldredge confirmed that the speed zone signing had been completed on June 30 and Aug. 25. But according to an e-mail sent Aug. 1 to Aldredge from Roger Rubico, of the Houston District’s Traffic Engineering Section, the correct signs had not been placed on the eastbound side of FM 1314.
“The speed limit signs, per our memo dated June 10, 2008 (copy attached), were not correctly installed for the above subject location. Please change/install the signs as indicated in the attached strip map. Also attached are pictures taken at the at the mentioned location,” Rubico wrote in his e-mail.
Lewis said an investigation was taking place at TxDOT’s Area office in Conroe “with the parties involved.” The Courier contacted Rubico, Aldredge and Montgomery County Area Engineer Karen Baker. They referred all questions to Lewis.
“This started out as a mistake, but it was allowed to happen through incompetence and arrogance,” Gadus said. “They (TxDOT employees) were sent out twice to fix it and botched it.”
Gadus claims the Sheriff’s Office dropped the ball because, when it contracted with TxDOT to run the STEP program on FM 1314 this fiscal year, the Sheriff’s Office must make certain its enforcement sites comply with “existing state-mandated speed limits in accordance to the Texas Transportation Code,” according to a TxDOT manual.
“They have to check to make certain the speed zones are correct,” said Gadus, adding that the county’s failure to do so was another “breakdown” of the system.”
However, McDaniel said TxDOT bears the responsibility for verification of speed limits, something TxDOT’s Lewis confirmed.
“The onus of verification is solely with TxDOT,” she said. “They (law enforcement) are not required to take (TxDOT) strip maps and go check out the roadway signage.”
According to Gadus’ measurements, the distance from the 50 mph sign to the 40 mph sign on FM 1314 was approximately 768 feet. He claims the minimum distance between speed limits should be 1,056 feet.
Lewis said Gadus’ issue about the distance between speed limit signs is irrelevant as drivers are still required to maintain the posted speed limit. The 50 mph limit along that section of FM 1314 was the result of a traffic study years ago, she said.
“The motorist is responsible for driving at the posted speed,” she said. “When the 50 mph sign was posted, the other signs should have been 50 mph also and not 40 mph. It has nothing to do with the distance between signs.”
Enforcement of the speed limits is at the discretion of local law enforcement and the judicial system, Lewis said.
Retha Gadus is scheduled to appear in Metts’ court on Sept. 3, unless her ticket is dismissed before then. If she has to go trial, Joe Gadus said his wife’s defense includes the distance between speed limit signs, that she was going 50 mph, and the blocked view of the 40 mph sign by the trucks parked along the highway.
“I’ve told her that with the speed signs wrong, they can’t prosecute her,” Joe Gadus said.
Meanwhile, Gadus has shipped a memo to TxDOT’s offices in Austin, asking the agency to insure similar incidents don’t reoccur.
“I also ask that a public notice be issued to inform motorists of the errors. It is the right thing to do,” he said in the e-mail.