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Published February 23 2013

Lead-foot legislators: Some ND lawmakers speed outside the law

BISMARCK - With a driving record marred by 11 speeding tickets since 2007, state Sen. Connie Triplett admits she has a problem behind the wheel.

“I have no serious traffic violations, but I do have a lead foot,” she said.

The Grand Forks Democrat isn’t alone in her lead-footedness.

In a state where the Legislature has repeatedly rejected attempts to raise traffic fines – some of which have gone unchanged since the 1950s – some lawmakers are better than others at obeying the rules of the road, public records show. (See attached links at right)

Since 2005, at least 53 of the House of Representatives’ 94 members, or 57 percent, and at least 29 of 47 senators, or 62 percent, have been cited for speeding or other moving violations, according to a review of online court records in North Dakota and Minnesota.

At least 17 senators and 36 House members had more than one citation on their records between the two states. A dozen lawmakers had five to nine citations for traffic- and vehicle-related offenses, while four lawmakers had 10 citations or more.

Not all citations may have shown up in the search, because while all North Dakota counties had adopted the current case management system by April 2003, some municipalities joined later, including Fargo, which adopted the system in October 2011. Also, the state warns that the data available through the public search website is not a complete or official criminal history.

Speeding fines ‘a joke’

As in past sessions, the Legislature is again considering a proposal to raise traffic fines. On Feb. 13, the House passed HB 1048 on a 61-30 vote, with Republicans accounting for all but one of the nay votes.

The bill, which now goes to the Senate, would simplify the speeding fine structure and allow cities and counties with home rule charters – including Fargo – to triple the speeding fines allowed under state law, and double fines for moving violations such as running a red light.

Triplett called raising traffic fines “a great idea,” adding, “I think it would be a deterrent to myself and others.”

“I think everyone has really acknowledged that the level of our speeding penalties has been kind of at the level of a joke for a long time, and so I don’t think there will be much resistance to increasing them,” she said.

Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee and was on the interim committee that endorsed the legislation last August, said he doesn’t think lawmakers’ own driving records play much of a role in the positions they take on speeding fines.

“Whether they personally believe a level is too high, I think they look more on a level for everyone rather than what they would have to pay,” he said.

Bill contains ‘tradeoff’

House Bill 1048 would simplify the speeding fine structure from three brackets to two.

Drivers would pay $2 for each mile per hour over the speed limit on roads posted at 65 mph or less, and $5 for each mile per hour over the limit on four-lane highways and interstates.

While the bill would potentially increase fines on roads posted at 55 mph and less, some fines would actually drop on 65 mph highways, Ruby noted.

Drivers caught speeding 1 to 10 mph over the limit on a 65-mph road now pay $2 for each mile per hour over the limit. If they’re caught going 11 mph or more over the limit, they pay $20 plus $5 for each mile per hour over 75 mph.

For example, someone caught speeding 76 mph in a 65 mph zone pays $25. Under the proposed law, the ticket would be $22.

Ruby called the lower fines on 65 mph roads “a tradeoff.” Along with the simplified fine system and the flexibility given to cities and counties with home rule charters to raise fines above the state level but only to a certain amount, it made the bill more palatable to lawmakers, he said.

“I actually was just shocked that there was no verbal opposition to it and it passed that quick,” he said.

Deterrent vs. revenue

Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, who was among the 30 lawmakers who voted against the bill, said he wasn’t convinced the changes were necessary or that they would deter speeding.

North Dakota’s traffic fines “may be a bit on the low side,” but they shouldn’t be raised just because of their relationship to other states’ fines or to generate more revenue for agencies patrolling the roads, Koppelman said.

“If the argument is we should go from $25 for a certain violation to $50, is that really going to be a deterrent to most people?” he said. “And so at some point it just becomes, ‘We want to raise more revenue.’ ”

Koppelman said he believes people with speeding tickets on their records – he has four – aren’t necessarily habitual speeders, and that most people end up speeding as they transition between speed zones or are driving in wide open areas with no traffic.

“I don’t know that raising the traffic fines a little bit or even adding a little severity in the point system in and of itself is a deterrent to the people who essentially end up getting caught because they didn’t pay attention enough to see a speed zone switch,” he said.

Keeping track

The state Department of Transportation maintains an official driver’s license database that tracks non-serious violations such as speeding and running a red light, as well as serious violations such as driving under the influence.

Non-serious violations stay on a person’s driving record for three years. Those who accumulate 12 or more points may have their license suspended.

On roads posted at less than 70 mph, exceeding the speed limit by 1 to 10 mph doesn’t add points to a driver’s license. Getting caught going 11 to 15 mph over the limit is punishable by one point. Three points are assessed for 16 to 20 mph over, five points for 21 to 25 mph over, nine points for 26 to 35 mph over, 12 points for 36 to 45 mph over and 15 points for 46 mph and over. Points begin accruing at 6 mph over the limit on highways with posted limits of 70 mph or greater.

Glenn Jackson, director of the state Driver’s License Division, agreed that it’s difficult for a driver to get his or her license suspended on speeding tickets alone unless they’re especially severe.

“If that happens to you, then you’ve been speeding a lot, you’ve been stopped and caught and paid a lot of tickets. You know that you’re not doing what you should be doing,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528