Europe slapping rich with massive traffic fines
By FRANK JORDANS
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
GENEVA -- European countries are increasingly pegging speeding fines to income as a way to punish wealthy scofflaws who would otherwise ignore tickets.
Advocates say a $290,000 (euro203,180.83) speeding ticket slapped on a millionaire Ferrari driver in Switzerland was a fair and well-deserved example of the trend.
Germany, France, Austria and the Nordic countries also issue punishments based on a person's wealth. In Germany the maximum fine can be as much as $16 million compared to only $1 million in Switzerland. Only Finland regularly hands out similarly hefty fine to speeding drivers, with the current record believed to be a euro170,000 (then about $190,000) ticket in 2004.
The Swiss court appeared to set a world record when it levied the fine in November on a man identified in the Swiss media only as "Roland S." Judges in the eastern canton of St. Gallen described him as a "traffic thug" in their verdict, which only recently came to light.
"As far as we're concerned this is very good," Sabine Jurisch, a road safety campaigner with the Swiss group Road Cross.
She said rich drivers were lightly punished until Swiss voters approved a 2007 penal law overhaul that let judges hand down fines based on personal income and wealth for moderate misdemeanors including excessive speeding and drunk driving. Before, they had to assign relatively small fixed penalties or - rarely - a few days in prison.
The fines were traditionally insignificant for rich people, and in the rare cases where prison terms for small-time offenders were handed down, they were usually suspended anyway. And even when they were sent to jail, the deterrent was limited compared with the costs of incarceration borne by the taxpayers, officials said.
"It wasn't about making the punishment harsher or lighter, but more sensible," Heinz Sutter, an official at the Swiss Justice Ministry, told The Associated Press.
In the latest Swiss case, the court took into account the man's history of similar offenses, the high speed with which he drove through a small village (60 miles - or 97 kilometers - an hour, nearly twice the 30 mph (50 kph limit), and his estimated personal wealth of over $20 million.
"The accused unscrupulously and without obvious reason, probably out of pure desire for speed, used a powerful vehicle to break elementary traffic rules," the court said, noting that the man could have risked the lives of pedestrians and other drivers.
Thomas Hansjakob, a prosecutor in the nearby city of St. Gallen, said the average driver is likely to get a more modest fine of several thousand Swiss francs (dollars).
"I think the man in the pub will get that this guy is only paying so much because he's rich, so it won't necessarily scare off others," he said. "But this is a signal for other rich people. We've had a real problem with wealthy foreigners hiring cars and conducting races on Swiss roads."
Last year a court sentenced six men from Hong Kong to fines of up to 95,000 francs after the men buzzed through Switzerland in hired Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and Audis at speeds of up to 142 miles (229 kilometers) an hour.
In a separate case, a Frenchman was fined 70,000 francs after being caught on a highway doing 151 miles (243 kilometers) an hour.
Switzerland's Association for Transport Psychology wants authorities to place more emphasis on compulsory courses for speeders and regular reviews of their fitness to drive.
"Our view is that ordering the drivers to take part in therapy sessions is much more effective than simply making them open their wallets," Andreas Widmer, the association's president, said.
And the nationalist Swiss People's Party wants to reverse the 2007 penal code changes, allowing judges to once again impose short prison sentences for lesser infractions, said one of its lawmakers, Luzi Stamm.
The current law could lead to "ridiculously low" penalties without any possibility of jail time for poor people who are caught driving drunk or speeding excessively, Stamm told the AP.
Associated Press reporters in bureaus around the world contributed to this story.