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TALES FROM THE FREEWAY

Fast Crowd : The Pro Circuit for a Chronic Speeder Is Any Open Highway

September 13, 1990|CAROLINE LEMKE

When extra traffic forces me to drive the posted speed limit, it gives me the sensation that my life is slowly slipping before my eyes. I become highly indignant and scan the road ahead, wondering who I can blame for gumming up my life in this fashion.

I have never felt sufficiently ashamed of my Parnelli-like tendencies, because all my friends are cut from the same black-and-white checkered cloth. Plus, we've never been caught.

The California Highway Patrol calls chronic speeders like us "professional violators."

It used to be, in the good old days, that the professional violator was a man in his early 30s who could spot the silhouette of a patrol car five miles away.

In the '90s, however, with all things being fairly equal, the professional violator is typically a woman in her 20s who can scan her rear-view mirror for marked cars and put a bead on freeway on-ramps with the best of them.

According to CHP statistics, North County freeways--especially Interstate 5 near Camp Pendleton and Interstate 15 just north of Escondido--are simply bursting with professional violators. "On I-5 from Oceanside to San Clemente, it's like a race," said Jerry Bohrer, a spokesman for the CHP.

In July, the CHP issued 2,547 speeding tickets on just those two stretches of freeway. In the Camp Pendleton area, where the road is straight and there are no onramps to create merge problems, the average speed is between 65 and 70 m.p.h. "It's frightening when you think of what the upper end is," Bohrer said.

Tim Santillan, another spokesman for the CHP, dashed a few of my theories on speeding. One is that you can't get nabbed for reckless driving unless you are traveling more than 25 m.p.h. over the posted limited.

When he stopped laughing, Santillan said a speeder is defined as anyone driving 10 miles over the posted limit, and recklessness is based on the conditions at the time.

Santillan also obliterated my notion that I am less likely to be pulled over if I'm speeding in the middle lanes rather than on the end lanes. "In the nine years I've been with the department, it's never made a difference where the car was located," he said.

And, although most traffic court judges prefer that a patrol car monitor a speeding vehicle for at least one mile before stopping it, there is no law requiring officers to pace a car for any specific length. Another strategy of mine shot down.

What about having a really good excuse?

"The most common excuses people use when they are pulled over is that they were just staying with the flow of traffic or they didn't know they were going that fast," Santillan said. More enterprising excuses have included, "I'm having a baby," "My speedometer doesn't work" and "My gas pedal got stuck." (The excuse I've held in reserve for use in summer months: "I'm entered in the guacamole competition at the Escondido Avocado Festival and my dip is turning brown.")

"It's ridiculous, some of the things people say," Santillan said.

If pulled over, Santillan said the best thing to do is comply with the officer and show vehicle registration, license and proof of insurance. This is not the time to question the officer's eyesight.

"The road is not the place to argue," Santillan said. "There are no cut-and-dried situations. . . . The officer can issue a warning or a ticket, but the place to discuss it is in court and with a judge."

Accumulating speeding tickets is like racking up strikes in a baseball game. With the first ticket comes an opportunity to redeem yourself by attending traffic violator's school.

A second offense within a year can bring a stiff fine, and a third violation calls for a possible restriction or suspension. A fourth ticket within a year means bidding adieu to your driver's license.

If caught going more than 100 m.p.h., a motorist automatically faces a $500 fine, Santillan said. Recently in San Marcos Municipal Court, where most North County traffic cases are heard, a speeder was fined $175 and received a 30-day suspension on his driver's license.

Santillan said there are no speed traps "per se" in North County. He said my impression that about 1,257 motorcycle cops lie in wait on California 78 near Vista is incorrect.

"We do enforce the speed using an aircraft monitor near Camp Pendleton and I-15 north of Escondido, where there is the biggest speed problem," Santillan said. "The aircraft paces vehicles from the air and relays the information to officers on the ground, who then pull over the violators," he said.

There are 74 CHP officers working out of the Oceanside office, which covers I-5 up from Del Mar to the Orange County line. The Rancho California office, which covers everything inland north of Gopher Canyon Road in Escondido, has 42 officers. The CHP is also responsible for patrolling roads in the unincorporated areas of North County, including Rancho Santa Fe, Fallbrook and Valley Center.

Although population has soared, the size of the CHP has increased only 10% since 1968. They've had to be creative to keep up with speeders.

This month the CHP has launched a trial program that gives them a more concentrated presence on the freeways. A special team of seven officers now cruises various stretches of I-5, looking to nab speed demons.

They never stake out a place for a long period and it's never known where they will pop up next. It may be time for some of us professional violators to find a new profession.

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