If you ever venture into the Harper's Choice neighborhood of Columbia, be sure to make a full stop at Eliots Oak and Hesperus. Howard County Police Cpl. Kelly Tibbs may be watching.
Tibbs has a perfect vantage point in the parking lot of an apartment complex from which to view the driving behavior of those going through that intersection. And on a recent morning, several careless motorists received potentially expensive reminders that "STOP" means just that.
The 12-year veteran officer had company that morning because a reporter was interested in a recently announced Howard County program in which police would aggressively enforce traffic laws whether the violators were drivers, bicyclists or pedestrians.
It seemed like a good idea. It seemed like something that would make even more sense in Baltimore City, where the streets often seem to be in a state of anarchy.
Unfortunately, the morning I rode along with Corporal Tibbs, we witnessed no foot or bicycle violations that rose to the level of a traffic stop. It turned out to be a morning of what could be called heightened enforcement of driving laws. Nothing cutting-edge.
Still it was fascinating to watch a highly professional officer at work on traffic patrol — one of the least appreciated but most important assignments in police work. For it is the knowledge that people like Tibbs are out there that keeps modest limits on the insanity that would otherwise rule the streets. And while many drivers react to a traffic stop by grousing that officers should be out there fighting "real crime," most of us are far more likely to have our lives cut short by a traffic crash than by menacing thugs.
In Howard County, like most jurisdictions in Maryland, traffic deaths far outnumber murders. And that's very much on Tibbs' mind as she goes about nabbing violators.
"These details are targeted toward making sure those people are safe," Tibbs said.
As part of the Street Smart campaign, Tibbs appeared to be a bit more aggressive about stopping speeders than an officer usually would be. She found a space in the entrance of a parking lot off Harpers Farm Road and pointed her radar gun at the approaching cars. She let folks exceeding the 30 mph speed limit to go by unchallenged before one registered 36 on her device.
"It's not horrible but still speeding," she said.
She followed the driver for a short distance, waiting for a safe place to make the traffic stop. Then she flicked on the flashing lights. The driver did just the right thing and pulled off to the side of the road. Officers don't especially appreciate the motorists who "helpfully" continue until they can pull into a parking lot and stop. Police want to be able to see and be seen as they write citations.
In this case, the driver of the Jeep 4X4 got off with a warning. Her record came up clean, and Tibbs said she has discretion on whether to write a ticket at a certain speed. On this sunny, dry day, 6 mph over the limit wasn't enough to warrant a ticket. Things might be different if the pavement was slick with rain, she said.
It's not all about the fines.
"This is also about education. People don't always realize how fast they're going," she said.
Cruising down Harpers Farm Road, Tibbs spots a woman driving while chatting away on her cellphone. It's not safe, it's against the law, but Tibbs can't pull her over because the General Assembly made it a "secondary" offense. Because the officer didn't observe another clear-cut violation, she couldn't stop the violator for that alone.
Tibbs said motorists are aware of the law.
"They know they're doing wrong, and you look at them and they put the phone down," she said.
The next stop is Tibbs' vantage point overlooking the four-way stop on Eliots Oak. She watches several motorists make half-hearted pauses at the sign but lets them slide. With so many flagrant violators out there, she feels no need to clamp down on technical violations.
But there's nothing technical about the way the driver of a Honda Civic races through the stop sign and takes a right on Hesperus, going at least 40 mph up the residential street. On the rear bumper, a sticker reads: "Choose Civility."
The driver turns out to be an 18-year-old woman in her mother's car. The computer informs Tibbs that the young woman has 5 points on her driving record. One of her tickets was for going 65 mph in a 25-mph zone; another for 86 in a 65. Now she's getting a failure-to-stop to add to her collection.
Tibbs, like many officers, believe it's the points more than the fines that have deterrent value. She said it can be discouraging when the courts protect flagrant offenders from the insurance consequences.
"It's frustrating when you see the things people are doing and judges are lenient," she said.
The final stop is a young woman who wasn't wearing her seat belt. She turns out to be an 18-year-old on a provisional license. It's not an offense for which Tibbs is inclined to give a break because she's seen the results of crashes in which people weren't wearing belts. She hands the driver a ticket for $25 — the fine prescribed by Maryland legislators.
"I think they should raise it," Tibbs said. "It's been $25 for a long time."
It turns out to be a routine morning. No car chases, no stumbling drunks. It was interesting, though. You get a different perspective from the front seat of a police cruiser. Maybe it's a sign of advanced age or rigid thinking, but I felt little sympathy for the offenders. It's just good to know there are officers like Tibbs out there to keep us safe. Long may she lurk.
Now watch me get nabbed next time I'm in Harper's Choice.