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EDITORIAL: Going for Broke

Jul 16, 2007

By The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Jul. 17--Consider Virginia. With its legacy of planters and presidents, placed by destiny on the doorstep of the nation's capital (and with its own capital having doubled as the Confederacy's), the proud Commonwealth is well known to Tar Heels as one of the twin Mountains of Conceit bordering our very own Vale of Humility.

(The other peak, just for the record, is the one populated by all those South Carolinians.)

Now Virginia has embarked on a colossal experiment in behavior modification and revenue-raising, one that every northbound North Carolina leadfoot will want to watch.

As a New York Times account put it, as of July 1 "Virginia has arguably become the worst place in the country to commit a serious traffic violation." Worst place as in, most expensive place.

A new system of civil penalties for severe driving infractions will raise the total bill for some offenses to as much as $3,000. In addition to existing fines and court costs, the civil penalty for going 20 mph or more over the limit will be $1,050. First-time drunken drivers could be hit with a penalty of $2,250.

The fact that Virginia's new setup allows the guilty parties to pay off their debts to society in three (easy?) annual payments can't be much consolation. Virginia speeders will truly be going for broke -- all in the interest of greater highway safety and raising an estimated $65 million a year for road improvements.

Note -- Virginia speeders.

In what's turned out to be the most controversial aspect of all this, enforcement of the new civil penalties will apply only to card-carrying Virginians. So a Gastonian giving it the gas past Petersburg, for example, will be hit with the usual fine, but not the whopping new penalties. Virginia's legislators reserved those for in-staters, assuming that the really big bucks would be too hard to collect from the likes of, well, us.

And that's not sitting well with the Cavalier set.

According to The Associated Press, "On talk radio, blogs and in letters to the editor," Virginians "are sounding off about a burden only they bear while nonresident bad drivers are exempt." Gov. Timothy M. Kaine says he can "understand that feeling." Lawyers are gearing up for a constitutional challenge to the in-state/out-of-state distinction.

So one watching point for North Carolinians is that though we won't have to surrender our wallets for speeding through Appomattox County right now, next year could be different.

Another is that Virginia is wrestling with some of the underlying factors that have undistinguished North Carolina's system of traffic enforcement. In our state, the main monetary threat to traffic offenders comes not in huge fines (or civil penalties) but through the auto insurance system: too many "points" and a driver's rates rise remarkably and stay there for three years. Also, drivers here can lose their licenses for as little as a single higher-speed offense.

As a result, courtrooms and lawyers' phone lines are clogged with speeders seeking any loophole in a storm -- sometimes in the form of a plea bargain that lets even serious offenders off on the inconsequential charge of "broken speedometer." And the deals are there to be had. As an N&O series this spring showed, the system is rife with inconsistency and inefficiency. It would be cleaner and clearer to rely on higher fines for speeding but fewer drastic threats to driver's licenses and insurance rates, at least for those speeders with relatively clean records who don't cause an accident.

Virginia, in a sense, is trying such a system out, on a mind-boggling scale. Will the courts there be clogged with plea bargain-hunters? Will the roads be lined with revenue-raising troopers? And will the (relatively) free pass for out-of-staters be revoked? Stay tuned.

Just don't tune in your radar detector. They're not messing around. It's banned in Virginia.

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To see more of The News & Observer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.newsobserver.com.

Copyright (c) 2007, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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