Michael Stone: The facts on the Waldo speed trap

Published: Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 4:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 4:30 p.m.

After reading Waldo Councilwoman Carolyn Youngblood Wade's Aug. 18 response to my column about her city's speed trap, I felt it necessary to clear up some of the strategic jabs she attempts to make without confronting the overlying issues.

And the best way to do that: by reiterating the facts.

Since Wade used the “as defined by Webster's” line, I'll do the same. A fact is “a piece of information presented as having objective reality.” By using facts, we can look past the muddled arguments and see the object reality of the moneymaking police work going on in Waldo.

Fact 1: Crime is up in Waldo. This is according to numbers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that anyone can look up online. Recapping from my first column, in just two years (2011-12), total listed crimes were up 60 percent compared to the last six years (2000-06) the Waldo Police Department reported. Meanwhile, the city's population only increased about 24 percent over the same time period.

Fact 2: The amount of tickets written in Waldo has increased by thousands over a decade. As of 2003, the average was 6,300 handed out annually, according to the AP. By 2012, that number climbed to 10,000, The Sun archives say, which is about 10 tickets a year for every citizen in the city.

Since each ticket inarguably takes time and effort for an officer—from waiting to snag a driver, to the stop itself, to the paperwork, to possible court appearances, to rinsing and repeating—we can say that Waldo police have put more effort into ticketing over the years. So to put the first two facts together, Waldo has put more effort into traffic tickets in a time period when crime has gone up.

Fact 3: I'm not alone in my criticisms. As I noted in my first column, Waldo was ranked No. 3 in the National Motorists Association's 2012 list of the “Worst Speed Trap Cities” in North America. About 10 years ago, the book “America's Worst Speedtrap: A Former Officer's View” was self-published by ex-employee Chris Kirkland. In the book, Kirkland alleges use of ticket quotas, speed traps and officer coercion, according to archives from The Ledger newspaper.

Dena Rice, a downtown Waldo business owner, told the paper police were chasing away business and that she purchased Kirkland's book for donation to the local library. Rice also put out a $100 reward for a photograph of a radar-running officer “hiding or lurking,” a 2002 St. Petersburg Times article says.

AAA has also fought Waldo by calling it one of only two true “traffic traps” in the country, the other being nearby Lawtey. Since my last column, I have discovered many other instances of Waldo police persecution, most notably the fining of an 88-year-old World War II veteran for going just 10 over.

Fact 4: State officials have actually tried more than once to pass legislation that would put a dent in Waldo's profiteering scheme. One proposed bill in 2002 would have banned cities from using more than 25 percent of traffic fine revenue for their own budgets, according to Florida-Times Union archives.

The only cities that would have been affected? You guessed it—Waldo and Lawtey.

That means state officials designed a bill specifically for just two small towns in Florida. It wouldn't have gotten past the Senate Transportation Committee like it did if state lawmakers didn't think what Waldo is doing is wrong.

"We're just taking away their printing presses," former Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Sebesta told the Times-Union.

Rep. David Russell, who was the House transportation chairman at the time, said of his journey along U.S. 301: “I felt like it was a speed trap.”

Fact 5: The state Department of Transportation is doing a study on whether the 45 mph limit near the Waldo flea market on U.S. 301 should be raised to 55. This expanse was originally lowered to 45 to protect shoppers when the market was much more busy than it is now.

DOT officials wouldn't be doing the study, of course, if they didn't feel there were reasons—namely far fewer pedestrians—for the change.

The DOT has also turned down Waldo's requests to have a consistent 45 mph limit all the way through, eliminating the 55 mph drive that has been established by the DOT as safe for the straightaway highway.

So the DOT has turned down Waldo's desire to deepen the trap by lowering limits, and state lawmakers have proactively tried to lessen the city's revenue stream.

There are the facts, folks, but I want to close with a few words of my own opinion. Councilwoman Wade said in her column: “As to your $244 ticket representing 2.44 percent of your annual salary, that point is moot. Tickets are not based on your salary. If a cashier, plumber, teacher or Bill Gates violated a posted speed, the fine would be the same.”

I would beg to differ about this point being moot. In fact, besides possible license points, it's probably why most vocalize the issues—because a $50 ticket ain't gonna hurt nearly as bad. Right now, the U.S. poverty threshold for a single person is $11,490, and a Waldo speeding ticket claims 2.1 percent of that salary.

The city could stand between that man or woman having bread on the table, thus making the point the opposite of moot. Not for an aggressive offense toward a fellow person, but for traveling past police officers who camp out at just the right spots because they know for a fact they're going to catch an unlucky someone off-guard as the speed limits quickly plummet.

If any point is moot, it's Wade saying that “.0013698 of drivers (traveling through Waldo) are actually ticketed.” It wouldn't matter if it's .0000000000001 percent, the fact remains: about 10 tickets for every Waldo citizen are being handed out a year to fill a large portion of the city's budget.

The phrase “the signs are clearly posted, so it's the driver's fault” is tossed around quite a bit by people who, for whatever reason, support this shady police work. (Honestly as a driver, I would rather have someone pay attention to the road before them than be nervous about whether they got a visual on all of Waldo's signs.)

That's not even close to the issue at hand. Instead, it's about police strategically camping on the road while crime rates rise. It's about a police attitude that says it's OK to ticket World War II veterans for going only 10 over. It's about the DOT having to tell Waldo no on making drivers easier targets through speed limit reductions.

It's about lawmakers feeling this is such a problem that they design legislation specifically for Waldo and one other city. Waldo's state representatives—Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Clovis Watson—have a real opportunity to clean up the reputation of the city and better the community by again proposing a sensible solution to the speed trap problem.

Until then, find an alternative route and drive around the city. It's a lot cheaper.

I agree with Wade on the reference from my first column: The city isn't a peaceful Mayberry. No, I think the current name of Waldo fits perfectly, where issuing a citation for a few extra dollars means more than showing some restraint and perhaps a little clemency for fellow people as we all drive through the struggles of life—and the speed trap of Waldo.

Michael Stone is a graduate student in environmental communications at the University of Florida.

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