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EDITORIAL: Federal speed traps

Uncle Sam’s $744 million highway-robbery ring

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Millions hit the road to be with family and friends for barbecues and other outdoor activities on Memorial Day weekend. It's no coincidence that police around the country were staked out on the side of the road in anticipation. That's because the federal government encourages states to shake down travelers who pose no threat to others.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration last year raided $744 million that motorists paid in federal gasoline taxes and doled out the cash to the states in the form of "highway safety" grants. The word safety is meant to conjure images of responsibility, but the primary use of the money is paying overtime to cops running speed traps. Virginia, for example, claimed $18 million in grants this year, with $2.3 million allocated to the state police. That agency will use this money almost exclusively on ticketing blitzes and new radar guns. A mere $14,500 will be spent on educating youth about the importance of seat belts.

The largest grant to the state police bankrolled Operation Air, Land and Speed, which took place on Interstate 81 and Interstate 95 on May 22 and 23. The payoff was 5,814 tickets, 90 percent of which were for alleged speeding violations. The narrow focus on a single infraction is entirely misplaced, as just 9 percent of accidents in Virginia are caused by drivers exceeding the speed limit, according to the latest Department of Motor Vehicles statistics. Almost as many fender benders are caused by people slowing and stopping; bad behavior such as tailgating is responsible for far more collisions.

J.J. Bahen Jr., a consulting traffic engineer for the National Motorists Association, says police make things more hazardous when they exploit areas with serious engineering defects. Mr. Bahen conducted a survey of a favorite speed-trap location, a 55-mph stretch of I-95 near Bryan Park in Richmond, and concluded that the speed limit was posted too far below the prevailing 69 mph flow. "The safest movement of traffic is for all traffic to travel at about the same speed," he told The Washington Times. "This can only occur when speed limits are posted at the natural speed of the highway. Underposted speed zones actually increase crash rates because they cause some drivers to drive below the natural speed of the highway."

Yet the Bryan Park trap is designated a "highway safety corridor," where tickets are boosted up to $500 each. Such traps helped generate 2 million traffic tickets last year, pouring $68.6 million into the state literary fund and $73 million into the court system.

Government agencies perpetuate the myth that "speed kills" to keep this highway robbery alive. In recent years, however, accident rates have plunged as roads have gotten faster. Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell made it a priority to have the Old Dominion's rural interstates posted at 70 mph. Texas and Utah have set certain routes at 80 mph. Nationwide, the road fatality rate is at its lowest point ever. Speed alone demonstrably does not kill. It's time to put an end to this misuse of federal money in the name of highway safety.

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