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Trevor Born, Associated Press Writer, Published February 05 2011

North Dakota Legislature: Bill seeks higher speeding fines

BISMARCK – A North Dakota House member who is a retired Highway Patrol officer wants harsher penalties for what he calls “some of the most egregious” driving violations, such as driving over the speed limit in construction zones and taking chances on roads in bad weather.

Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, proposed a bill that would impose a $500 fine for driving more than 20 mph over the speed limit in school and construction zones. It also would toughen the consequences for driving on roads shut down because of foul weather.

The bill would also boost the number of points a driver gets on his or her license for the violation. Excessive speeding in construction or school zones would carry a six-point penalty. It would jump three more points for each 5 mph over the limit, to as many as 15 points.

“Stiffening fines will send a message to drivers that we treat these violations seriously,” Gruchalla told the House Transportation Committee during a Friday hearing. “The traffic code hasn’t been really updated in 40 years. A lot of these penalties are archaic, and we should overhaul it.”

Under state law, drivers who reach 12 points lose their license for a week. Each point after that means another week’s suspension. Fifteen points equals a four-week suspension.

Francis Ziegler, the state transportation director, said he supports any measure that would coax people to slow down in risky areas. Currently people caught driving 21 mph over the limit – whether or not they were in a construction or school zone – face a $100 fine and five penalty points.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in construction, and one of the scariest things is when you’re standing on a highway and a semi-truck passes and pulls your hard hat off,” Ziegler told the committee.

Officers cited 66 people during a New Year’s Eve snowstorm for driving on Interstate 94 after it had been closed, and many of those drivers were stuck, Ziegler said. Rescuing drivers on closed roads is dangerous for workers and keeps them from their job of clearing roads, he said.

The penalty for driving on a closed road would take a big leap under the bill, from the present $20 fine and no points to six points and a fine as large as $500.

A milder Senate bill on the same violation would impose a $100 fine for driving on a closed road. The fine increases to $250, with four penalty points, if the driver goes around a barrier to drive on a closed road.

“That’s a serious thing, as we’ve seen in the recent storms,” Gruchalla said. “Somebody has to go find those people when they go out and get stuck in a drift. I’ve had to do it myself, and it’s dangerous.”

No one testified in opposition to the bill, HB1381, at Friday’s hearing.

The Senate will vote on its closed roads bill, SB2157, next week.