Speeding bill fails in House vote

Legislation would have made violators face more serious punishments

Staff WriterAugust 2, 2007 

  • A News & Observer series in May, 'Speed Unlimited,' revealed that in North Carolina:

    * Speed-related wrecks kill more drivers than accidents involving alcohol.

    * Only 2.4 percent of those accused of driving above 55 mph and more than 15 miles per hour over the limit are convicted as charged.

    * Chronic speeders are nearly four times as likely to be in a vehicle accident as randomly selected drivers.

    * Almost no tickets are issued for less than 9 mph above the limit.

The state House defeated a bill Wednesday night aimed at tightening loopholes that allowed chronic speeders and drivers charged with driving exceptionally fast to escape punishment.

Two Republican lawyers who represent speeders in traffic court, Tim K. Moore of Shelby and Bonner L. Stiller of Oak Island, amended the bill before the House voted it down 60-54. Supporters said the two changes weakened the bill's attempts to limit easy plea deals that have been offered in many districts by prosecutors and judges.

Rep. Rick Glazier of Fayetteville, a Democrat, said legislators were missing a chance to prevent accidents. "People are dying on our roads," he said.

Late Wednesday night, House Democrats met privately to decide whether to try to revive the legislation. Glazier said afterward they would try this morning to reconsider the bill.

The legislation was hatched in the Senate in May, shortly after The News & Observer reported that some district attorneys allowed speeders to plead repeatedly to "improper equipment," in effect claiming a broken speedometer. The maneuver saves their license and prevents their insurance company from levying a surcharge. The newspaper discovered one man who had 19 speeding charges reduced to improper equipment in a five-year period.

The series, "Speed Unlimited," also showed that judges had given free passes, known as prayers for judgment continued, to drivers charged at 100 mph and above.

The bill it prompted, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, had passed the Senate 49-1.

It would have limited the number of improper equipment pleas to two in a five-year period and stopped prosecutors from giving that break to drivers caught speeding more than 25 mph over the limit. More than 36,000 drivers were given three or more such reductions from 2001 to 2006, according to an analysis of state records by The N&O.

It is not necessary to have a broken speedometer to plead guilty to that charge. Or even to pretend you have one.

Chronic speeders have been able to abuse the system in part because improper equipment convictions are not moving violations and therefore have not been recorded on the driver's record at the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles. Prosecutors can't tell, from looking at a DMV driving record, how many speeding charges already have been pleaded down to improper equipment.

The new legislation would have required DMV to keep a record of those convictions, too.

Judges have given breaks by granting what's known as a prayer for judgment continued, or PJC. The defendant pays the cost of court, $110, but no fine. It saves the driver's license and prevents an insurance increase.

In Guilford County, 60 percent of drivers charged with 90 mph and over -- some driving as fast as 125 in a 65 mph zone -- were given PJCs by judges in the 12-month period ending June 2006.

The speed bill would have made drivers charged with speeding in excess of 25 mph over the limit ineligible for a PJC or an improper equipment plea. Over a five-year period, more than 40,000 cases in which drivers were charged with speeding in excess of 25 mph over the limit were given such breaks.

Moore, the leading opponent, said he had tried to fix "obvious flaws" with the bill, including what he said were conflicts with existing laws regarding PJCs, but that the sponsors didn't want to compromise. He said much of the opposition came from legislators who didn't want to dictate policy to judges and prosecutors.

"Really, it's a problem of micromanaging the courts," Moore said. "If it's an issue of giving [breaks] out like candy, that's something that needs to be handled at the district level.

"The vote tonight should not be taken as an endorsement of what has happened in some of the districts."

Moore said it was conceivable that the bill's backers could now be interested in a compromise, although that would be difficult if the session ends today as expected.

House Speaker Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said he was uncertain whether the legislation could be revived.

"I don't know," he said. "It should."

(Staff writers Dan Kane and Steve Riley contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Pat Stith can be reached at 829-4537 or pat.stith@newsobserver.com.

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