ST. ANN • Police Detective Ray Albers dons a uniform and punches in for an overtime detail. He'll be driving one of six chase cars as part of the city's stepped up speeding enforcement on Interstate 70.
"The surprise is the amount of speeders that are out here," Albers says while awaiting word from spotters in the nearby Drury Inns office building. "We continually get speeders. They see us out here at least three times a week. I wrote the same guy twice."
Moments later, a voice cracks on his car radio alerting Albers that a car clocked at 75 mph is heading his way. He pulls his cruiser from the shoulder and tails a maroon 2000 Chevrolet Malibu. He flicks on his flashing lights and pulls the driver over.
In addition to the speeding ticket, the woman driving the Malibu gets popped for expired Missouri plates, no valid drivers license and no proof of insurance. A second officer took the woman, 53, into custody.
St. Ann and seven of its north St. Louis County neighbors have created a seven-mile gantlet for speeders along a stretch of I-70 that extends roughly from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to the St. Louis city limit. They set and enforce their own fines — and the tickets many of them issue are much heftier than those written by the Missouri Highway Patrol.
Since they began the special detail in mid-July, St. Ann police officers figure they have written about 6,000 tickets. Motorists stopped for speeding on I-70 are subject to fines that usually start at $200 for topping the speed limit by 11 mph and can soar to $300 for higher speeds.
St. Ann's speeding fines and tactics — which involve officers using a tripod-mounted LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to identify speeding cars from a distance — have many motorists fuming about the crackdown as a sort of assembly-line speed trap.
"Outrageous," motorist Randy Wilkerson of O'Fallon, Mo., said while waiting outside St. Ann City Hall for traffic court this month. "I've never had a $250 ticket."
Wilkerson was stopped for driving 73 mph on eastbound I-70 on a low-traffic Saturday morning in November. By the time he reached the three-quarter mile stretch inside St. Ann city boundaries, he saw several police cruisers waiting.
"They made it more dangerous by pulling people over there," he said. "There is no place to pull people over. You've got onramps on the right side and trash on the left side."
Wilkerson was written up for exceeding the speed limit by 18 mph. But he showed up last week with proof that the Missouri Department of Transportation had increased the speed limit to 60 mph before he was ticketed, meaning he had exceeded the limit by 13 mph. Under St. Ann's traffic fine schedule, it meant the difference of $50.
Wilkerson said he was able to get the fine knocked down to $150 that night, but it is 'still higher than anywhere else."
TRAVEL SAFE ZONE
The eight cities initially dubbed the seven-mile stretch of I-70 an "accident reduction corridor." Last month, however, MoDOT formally labeled it a Travel Safe Zone, mandating double fines. St. Ann, it turns out, had already been collecting fines that were roughly double those assessed for tickets written by the Highway Patrol. In all, four cities between Lambert and the St. Louis city limit write the more expensive tickets.
St. Ann set its higher fines by ordinance last year, according to Police Chief Bob Schrader. Pine Lawn, Normandy and Cool Valley impose the higher fines, too.
Woodson Terrace, Northwoods and Berkeley did not increase their fees before the Travel Safe Zone, officials said. Right now, they are in various stages of reviewing the higher fines.
Edmundson Police Chief Donald Kraher said his city adopted the higher fines but hasn't yet enforced them. "I didn't want to impose it until the signage was in place," Kraher said.
Motorists pulled over in Edmundson will receive tickets mirroring St. Ann's $200 to $300 fines in the next week and a half. Like some of the smaller communities along I-70, Edmundson does not have a special speed enforcement detail working I-70. He said it is a small department with one designated traffic officer, who works I-70 as well as other city streets.
Schrader has publicly stated that St. Ann doubled fines on this stretch of I-70. More precisely, according to department fine schedules, the municipality instituted a whole range of higher fines in the corridor — fines much higher than its officers issue for violations on its town streets — and a typical St. Ann fine roughly doubles what the Highway Patrol issues on the same stretch of highway. For example, St. Ann charges a speeder $200 for traveling 11 to 15 mph over the speed limit, while the state officers charge $108. The municipality also charges substantially higher fines than the state for higher speeds.
Cities can set and enforce their own speeding fines — even if it is on a highway, according to a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. But Missouri's little-used speed trap law caps the percentage of a city's budget that can be generated by traffic fines from a state or federal highway at 35 percent.
NOT ABOUT MONEY
Schrader said the traffic enforcement isn't about the money — even though St. Ann's tax base has taken a hit with the loss of retail shops at the once-thriving Northwest Plaza, which lost two of its last major anchors last year. Instead, he hopes to prevent speed-related traffic accidents on that section of I-70.
"Our stretch of 70 is or was out of control," Schrader said. "We're trying to get it back into control. It's all about the accidents. We want to drop those accidents."
The number of accidents have dropped during the past six months, Schrader said. Between Jan. 1, 2010, and July 19 — the day the accident reduction corridor was launched — there were 42 accidents on I-70 in St. Ann. Since July 19, there have been 10 accidents.
The Missouri Department of Transportation said it found that the seven miles of I-70 had an above-average rate of accidents. As a result, it is one of five Travel Safe Zones that have been established across the state. Signs warn motorists that fines are doubled.
But no signs warned Jeri Hall of Belleville in October, when St. Ann police pulled her over.
Hall was told she was traveling 17 mph over the speed limit, which then was still 55 mph on that stretch of eastbound I-70 through St. Ann. The $250 fine accompanying her ticket stunned her.
"I knew tickets had gone up, so I figured maybe it would be $75 or $100," she said.
Ironically, while driving through St. Ann toward the University of Missouri the previous morning, she had told her two daughters traveling with her to remember there was a 'speed trap" to watch out for upon their return. But while driving back through St. Ann, she had just hung up from a work-related phone call.
Distracted, she didn't notice her cruise control was still set at 72 mph.
"You don't have a chance," she said.
Schrader takes issue with the characterization of his operation as a speed trap, which he said often involves abrupt changes in the speed limit. By contrast, the I-70 speed limit gradually changes from 70 mph west of Wentzville to 55 mph near Interstate 170.
"To be a speed trap, you've got to be hiding and keeping it secret," he said. "We want everyone to know that we're here so they slow down."