Caught in their own trap

Switched speed-limit sign exposes overzealous enforcement

It’d be great if the sheriff’s office responded to every accident this quickly.

A contractor allegedly reduced the speed limit on a portion of River Watch Parkway incorrectly a few months ago – and the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office wasted no time in targeting motorists for speeding tickets.

Officials now say the reduction to 45 mph from the longtime 55 mph was an accident by the contractor, going back as far as February. The reduced limit was only to be for certain hours due to a nearby work zone on the Augusta Canal towpath.

But the sheriff’s department sure capitalized on it – planting multiple deputies around a bend firing radar at unsuspecting evening commuters who’d grown rightfully accustomed to the 55-mph speed limit and failed to see the lone 45 mph sign.

The department says it didn’t know the speed limit was in error. We thought ignorance of the law was no excuse! But it remains that no one – not the contractor, not the sheriff’s department, not the city – thought to pick up a phone and ask someone if things were kosher.

Now they’ve essentially been caught in their own speed trap: After The Augusta Chronicle’s Steve Crawford exposed the cash grab on Sunday, court and law enforcement officials said Monday they are looking at reviewing and perhaps forgiving a good portion of the tickets.

Most, if not all, of the minor speeding violations should be dismissed. This was pure negligence on the part of those charged with maintaining signage on the roadways.

In addition, the folks involved showed a callous disregard for the driving public. If the speed limit on that portion of River Watch was going to be permanently lowered, as appeared to be the case for months, where was the notice to drivers? And wouldn’t a grace period – during which minor speeding violations would bring warnings rather than fines – be warranted?

Do we not deserve that kind of courtesy before deputies start lining up to line the county’s coffers?

Indeed, we talked to a traffic engineering expert who said the protocol for reductions in speed limits would likely include public service announcements and a month or more of multiple and inescapable warning signs. And again, a law enforcement agency might also observe a grace period in which speeders are merely warned.

Then there’s the little matter that there was no signage whatsoever before the roadway reverted to 45 mph from 55. It has become commonplace, and likely the transportation industry standard, for motorists to be warned of a reduction in speed limits up ahead.

Nope. Authorities were all-too-happy to take our money and not wonder a thing about whether it was fair, legal or proper.

Fact is, our traffic expert and a former prosecutor we contacted both said that the sheriff’s department was probably not authorized by the state to enforce a lower speed limit along that stretch of road – outside of the work zone and its limited hours of operation.

“I can say with certainty as a former prosecutor that I would not actively prosecute the citations that were issued,” our contact told us.

If you got one of those tickets, and the county is still trying to enforce it, we urge you to contact a lawyer or fight it on your own. You’ll be able to tell the court that the county was enforcing an unauthorized speed limit after failing to follow the protocol for lowering it.

We appreciate that the sheriff’s department wants to enforce traffic laws – but we suggest it should ask itself if perhaps it has been a little overzealous and antagonistic in this case.

The errant 45-mph sign now has a bag over it. But the sign has revealed a casual disregard toward the driving public that will take more than a bag to cover over.

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Tue, 12/06/2016 - 23:49

Try this nickname again

Tue, 12/06/2016 - 23:48

Cities must be liable

Tue, 12/06/2016 - 23:51

Fight the real fraud