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As speeding increases on empty Harford roads, law enforcement cracks down

Police have been targeting speeding and dangerous drivers on roads like Rt. 40 in Harford County.
Police have been targeting speeding and dangerous drivers on roads like Rt. 40 in Harford County. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

As the novel coronavirus has reduced traffic since it hit Maryland, speeding has become an issue on less crowded roadways, police said. Harford is no exception, with some posting blistering speeds of over 100 mile an hour.

In multiple Facebook posts, Sgt. Mike Lane of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office had a simple message for would-be speeders: Do so at your own peril.

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“The speeds some of you have been doing carry a huge fine, in some cases the citation comes with a $160 fine and two points [on your driver’s license],” he wrote, “And if you can’t afford the fine, or lose your license because of too many points, it’ll be your fault, nobody else’s.”

According to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, vehicle traffic in the state has decreased by an estimated 45% as drivers heed Gov. Larry Hogan’s stay-at-home order limiting non-essential travel due to the COVID-19 health emergency. That, Lane said, opens up the road for speed demons.

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Some drivers the sheriff’s office intercepted have hit speeds ranging from 85 to 100 mph. One of the more egregious stops, Lane wrote, was of a woman allegedly going 110 in a 45 mph zone; she appeared to be racing another car, and had her 3-year-old daughter in the vehicle, a fact that drew ire on social media.

That violation would carry a $530 fine and 5 points, Lane wrote.

The higher the speed, the worse the crash, Lane wrote, and going so fast narrows the window of time drivers have to react to an unanticipated situation, like a car changing lanes, animals crossing the roadway or a tire blowout. Luckily, Harford has not seen a significant increase in fatal crashes, he said.

In an interview, Lane said there is a disconnect between impressions of speeding and the real consequences it can have. He has seen the unfortunate result of it firsthand and been the bearer of bad news to families who lose a member in a traffic accident. When two police officers walk up to a door, generally, the person who answers it knows something is wrong, he said. A parent and grandparent himself, Lane dislikes that part of the job.

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Much of the speeding has been concentrated on Routes 40 and 543, Lane said. For a while, as county agencies grappled with the safest way to keep up services, traffic enforcement took a backseat to other concerns, which emboldened people to speed. Noticeable and severe traffic infractions were enforced, but focus shifted off speeding enforcement because of the risk it posed to deputies stopping cars.

"The more stops we make, the more chances we have of contact with somebody with COVID-19,” he said.

But the issue is not confined to Harford County. The Maryland State Police has recently dealt with a rash of commercial vehicle crashes on the capital beltway, spokesman for the agency Greg Shipley said. Beyond commercial vehicles, the state police have also heard multiple citizen concerns about speeding while the roads are less populated.

“In March and the first three weeks of April, troopers statewide issued 6,107 traffic citations and 6,333 warnings for speed violations alone,” Shipley wrote in an email.

Commander of the state police’s Bel Air Barracks Lt. Tim Mullin said the increased speeding in Harford County has not translated to an increase in accidents or lethality of collisions.

Mullin agreed that law enforcement had not been enforcing traffic violations earlier in the pandemic as much as normal. But now that officers have personal protective equipment and proper guidance to avoid infection during a traffic stop, it is back to business.

"It would be naïve to say that many in the public have not picked up on the fact that troopers, deputies and law enforcement are not stopping cars as much,” he said. "The deal is up, and we are back out, enforcing.”

That corresponded to increased enforcement action by state police barracks this past weekend, the agency said, culminating in a combined 541 traffic stops, 401 citations, 309 warnings, 25 safety equipment repair orders and seven arrests between May 15 and 17.

Troopers from the JFK Memorial Highway Barrack, which is responsible for patroling a 50-mile stretch of I-95 in Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties, conducted 46 traffic stops and issued 38 citations and 12 warnings in Harford on May 17, the organization announced in a news release.

The agencies have also resumed their joint traffic task-force — a roving squad that helps with traffic enforcement in select areas throughout the county, including most municipalities.

A common misconception is that traffic enforcement is done to raise money for the county, Lane said, but that is not true. He said all money flows to the state, not the locality. Instructions on who and how to pay can be found on the citation itself.

Lane implored drivers to follow the posted limits, but left readers with one final admonition in a post-script to his most recent Facebook post.

“I’ll be out just about every day handing out autographs on the bottom of citations!”

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