When it comes to roadway safety, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety doesn't talk about traffic "accidents." It calls them "crashes," because most can be prevented.

Speeding is the leading cause of single-vehicle crashes and among the leading contributors of all vehicle crashes causing injuries and fatalities in the state. People are either driving at illegal speeds or at a rate too fast for road conditions.

Traffic tickets are supposed to serve as both punishment and deterrent for speeding motorists. Unfortunately, a growing number of those lead-foot drivers can buy their way out of trouble.

By paying extra, Minnesotans in some cities can keep speeding violations off of their driving records. Last year, more than 16,000 speeders took that route, according to data compiled for a March 25 Star Tribune story by Pam Louwagie and Glenn Howatt.

That number is alarming. Speed limits exist, not as suggestions, but for public safety. When people know that all a ticket will cost them is a little extra cash to keep their records clean, they're less likely to change aggressive roadway behavior.

The legal system should also be fair in its application of the law. Minnesotans should bristle at any hint of a two-tiered justice system for speeders -- one for people who can afford to pay more to make the violation go away, and another for those who can't.

"It's frustrating to law enforcement. We want people to be held accountable for the violations that we witness," said Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Col. Matt Langer. "It makes it difficult for us to track chronic speeders when they don't have anything on their driving record."

Langer says there's no way to argue that the "pay more" programs benefit public safety. And safe roadways need to be an utmost concern to Minnesotans. Two years ago, a Department of Public Safety report said that the state "is still experiencing an epidemic concerning traffic crashes."

Fines for speeding range from $40 to $300, are generally set by the state, and the money is split among state and local governments, according the Star Tribune report. The state adds a $75 surcharge for the general fund. Cities and county governments may add fees, too.

But in cases where drivers get deals, the city and county governments establish their own fees, which attorney Tom Hughes called "a little extortion." He's a prosecutor for Mounds View and New Brighton in Ramsey County, which don't offer the deals.

It's understandable that people don't want violations on their records -- it can drive up the cost of their vehicle insurance. But letting bad drivers buy their way out of their offenses may push up the cost of insurance up for law-abiding motorists, because insurers will be less able to reward good driving.

Jon Cummings, founder of Minnesotans for Safe Driving, said he paid the ticket when he was cited for speeding last year.

"Even if I'd known I could buy my way out of it, I wouldn't have done it," he said. "It woke me up. I learned from it. I'm a much more aware driver now. I use my cruise control."

Unfortunately, legislators are also considering a way to keep speeding violations off driving records. Some want to extend provisions of the 1986 "Dimler Amendment" to say that speeding violations won't show up on records for citations up to 10 miles per hour above the speed limit.

The State Patrol opposes the change, which is popular in rural areas where population is sparse and traffic is light.

The dangerous irony, though, is that excessive speeding is especially dangerous in rural areas. The latest Minnesota crash statistics show that the majority of vehicle fatalities (69 percent) occurred in rural areas, and speed was often a contributing factor.

The statistics are clear: Finding new ways to help speeders skirt the law isn't going to make Minnesota's roads any safer or its court system any fairer.


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