Speed Traps Stir Debate in Small Towns
By CHRISTOPHER LEONARD
The Associated Press
Saturday, March 25, 2006; 8:37 AM
EOLIA, Mo. -- In local diners and truck stops, drivers talk about this little highway town with a word of warning. Watch your lead foot when driving through, they say. This is a speed trap town.
Eolia gained national recognition earlier this month when it was added to a rogue's gallery of speed traps listed on a Web site, speedtrap.org. That doesn't come as news to many residents, who are furious over a jump in speeding tickets being handed out under the new police chief who took over in November.
"You can be in Illinois or Iowa, and you mention Eolia, and they say: Oh _ the speed trap," said Jerry Burbridge, a trucker who lives in Eolia, about 70 miles northwest of St. Louis.
Eolia Police Chief Jerry Sutton said he's just enforcing the law.
"Safety _ it's a big thing with me. I would hate to see one child or one pedestrian get hurt in any way," Sutton said.
Eolia's situation is hardly unique. For isolated towns with crumbling streets, speeding tickets can be an important source of revenue. In Eolia, for example, a ticket for 1 mph over the limit costs $67.50 in fines and court costs. Missouri law lets cities keep all the revenue they collect from tickets.
Most speed trap towns have highways running through their city limits, providing steady access to out-of-towners who won't raise too big a stink when ticketed, said Eric Scrum with the National Motorists Association.
But handing out speeding tickets isn't always easy money. Eleven states have laws against speed traps, usually limiting the proportion of a city's budget that can come from tickets. And there's been backlash.
A prosecutor temporarily barred the town of Reed, Ark., from issuing tickets in 2004 because of speed trap complaints. In Coburg, Ore. in 2005, two municipal employees filed a $2 million lawsuit claiming the city fired them for not going along with a speed trap scheme. Web sites like speedtrap.org list towns with a reputation for ticketing and many drivers avoid them altogether.
Still, the financial incentive for giving tickets is clear. In Missouri, municipal governments set their own fines for speeding and keep all the money they collect from tickets issued in city limits, said Nancy Griggs, division director of court services for Missouri's Office of State Courts Administrator.
Griggs said some towns have been known to collect as much as 90 percent of city revenue from speeding tickets. The town of Curryville generated $133,507 from traffic violations in 2004, according to a state audit. Excluding money from a federal development grant, traffic violations accounted for more than half of Curryville's budget that year.
Highway 54 runs through the middle of Curryville, in rural northeast Missouri, becoming the town's Main Street as the speed limit drops from 55 mph to 35 mph over about a half-mile stretch.
Mayor Bill Dixon remembers when the city gave 100 tickets a month, but he says things have changed. The city recently hired Charles Francis as its new police chief _ he says he writes about nine to 15 tickets a month.
Convenience store owner Ellis Feith worries Curryville's past ticketing may have caught up with the city. Feith says traffic used to be heavy on the weekends, but now drivers bypass the town and Feith's store.
"If you build a town on giving tickets, you're asking for trouble in the long run," Feith said.
Business owners in Eolia worry the same fate might await them. Debbie Reading said business has fallen off steeply at her beauty salon.
"People are just getting pulled over for piddly little things," Reading said. "They actually tell us they don't want to come over here and get their hair cut because they're scared."