AUGUSTA, Maine — Average speeds of drivers on Maine roads are edging up, but law enforcement agencies are writing fewer tickets and many of the citations issued are going unpaid, according to law enforcement officials.
“It’s not that we don’t have a speeding problem, because I think a lot of people agree that we have people driving on our roads too fast,” said Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, president of the Maine Sheriffs Association, in a recent interview. “The Legislature has boosted the levels of fines so that they are considerable for speeding.”
He said many officers are writing warnings because the fines, which include several surcharges added by lawmakers, are difficult for many Mainers to pay, particularly in this lingering recession with tens of thousands out of work.
For example, up to nine miles per hour over the posted speed limit is a $119 fine. Ten dollars of the fine goes to the civil legal services fund, 10 percent goes for government operations, three percent goes to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, five percent goes to the Government Operations Surcharge Fund, one percent goes to the County Jail Prisoner Support and Community Correction Fund and one percent goes to the Maine State Police Computer Crime Unit.
The fines increase steeply for faster speeds, and are bumped even higher for speeding in a school or construction zone. For example, up to 19 mph over the posted speed limit is a $185 fine, but that jumps to $360 in a school or construction zone.
“I believe oftentimes the officer is sympathetic to the working man who can’t afford to pay the ticket and reduces the speed on the ticket or gives a warning,” Ross said. “I think you will find that with a lot of officers.”
Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, agrees. He said there is a speeding problem, with average speeds on the interstate and turnpike increasing whenever patrol efforts are reduced.
“We were seeing speeds of around 78 [mph] to 80 [mph] and when we stopped efforts for six months, that went up to 83 [mph] and every week we have somebody caught way above the limit,” he said recently.
The speed limit on I-95 between Old Town and Houlton was recently increased from 65 mph to 75 mph.
Williams said it is not uncommon to have troopers arrest someone going in excess of 100 mph. For example, one 22-year-old was charged with criminal speeding when clocked at 118 mph on Interstate 95 in Etna. A 48-year-old was arrested for going 101 mph on Route 35 in Standish during the morning commute.
“There is also a real manpower issue, not only for the state police, but for all of law enforcement,” he said. “Traffic enforcement is important, but other law enforcement activity takes precedence and we are being asked to do more and more.”
Williams said federal funds for special speed enforcement details have decreased and that has limited efforts by police across the state. He said it looks like those funds may be cut again this budget.
“I just don’t know what the answer is,” said Caribou Police Chief Mike Gahagan, president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. “We agree there is a problem, but we have a lot of crime that we have to deal with that is just more important.”
He said many agencies are overwhelmed by drug-related crimes and domestic violence and do not have the resources they would like to deal with all the enforcement issues facing agencies.
“I don’t have statistics, but I think most officers write more warnings than tickets,” Gahagan said recently. “They know how bad the economy is and how difficult it is to pay a big ticket in this economy.”
Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett said the state has seen declining revenues from fines since the recession hit the state. He said not only are police not writing as many tickets, the courts have had problems collecting what’s due.
“We have had to decrease revenue estimates several times in the last few years,” he said recently.
The state is projecting for the budget year that ended over the weekend that the state would collect $25.7 million in fines and penalties. But, with June to be counted, fines were more than $500,000 below reprojections made earlier this year.