Traffic scofflaw gets her comeuppance

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

December 21, 1992

Never mess with a morally outraged commuter.

A 58-year-old Towson resident proved that axiom this week by single-handedly accomplishing something that a lot of us only dream about: She brought a road hog to justice.

The woman, whom we shall call Betty, doesn't want to have her name appear in print. She worries about retribution.

Nevertheless, her experience is a reminder of the fundamental rights available to any of us -- as long as we are willing to go to the trouble of exercising them.

"A lot of people complain about traffic violations, but few are willing to do something about it," says Sgt. Lee Goldman of the Howard County Police Department. "If more people did this kind of thing, it might send a message to the motoring public."

Betty's saga began Oct. 27 when she was driving home on Cromwell Bridge Road in Baltimore County. She recalls that it was around 5 p.m. when she had to slow down for a car making an illegal left-hand turn onto Oakleigh Road. She was gradually accelerating to return to normal speed when an impatient driver barreled up from behind. The woman tailgated within inches of Betty's bumper and honked. She then decided to pass Betty on the left, crossing the double yellow line and waving her fist defiantly.

This annoyed Betty considerably. It was a dangerous move, not to mention illegal.

As they both continued driving along Cromwell Bridge, Betty got an idea. Since the other driver had succeeded in getting only two car lengths ahead, Betty was able to make out the woman's license plate. She jotted it down.

Moments after returning home, a still-shaken Betty called the Baltimore County Police. They traced the license plate, looked up the owner's driving record, and told Betty that if she were willing to appear in court, they'd help her file a complaint.

Fast-forward to last Wednesday. In a district courtroom in Towson, Betty took the stand and testified against the 23-year-old woman, who subsequently denied everything under oath.

The judge sided with Betty and found the woman guilty of driving on the wrong side of the road in a no-passing zone marked by pavement striping, imposing a $25 fine and $15 in court costs.

The whole process had taken almost two months. Betty and her husband had to wait around a courtroom for nearly two hours, not to mention paying $4 in parking. They endured a lot of evil stares from the defendant, but they were unbowed.

"I don't know if it did much good, but I'd do it again," Betty says. "Maybe it'll be a service to her more than anyone else. Next time, she might have had a head-on collision."

Records show that Betty's experience was somewhat unusual. As of Nov. 30, only about 1,700 people had filed applications for traffic-related charges in a Maryland district court this year. By comparison, the state's various police agencies file more than 1 million traffic citations every year.

"Once in a while, you'll meet someone who doesn't mind taking the time to file charges," says Lt. Charles D. Tyler of the state police. "It can be done, but I dare say you don't see it too often."

Many of us probably don't realize we have that power. If you witness a traffic violation, you may approach either the police or the local district court commissioner to make an application for a statement of charges. A criminal summons will be issued if the commissioner reviewing the application determines that there is probable cause that a violation has occurred. The summons will assign a future trial date in district court.

The system is not without its drawbacks. Certain crimes, speeding for instance, would be virtually impossible for a civilian to adequately document for a court. Identification can be dicey, too, since the average citizen doesn't have the right to force a motorist to pull over and show his or her driver's license and registration.

Like Betty, you will have to appear in court and likely take the witness stand to confront the defendant. The police can't do that for you.

Intrepid Commuter wishes more of us took the trouble to report such incidents. Nearly every week, one or more of our readers recounts a harrowing ordeal caused by a bozo who doesn't believe traffic laws apply to him or her. Police have a role to play, but maybe we do, too. That means not only adhering to the traffic laws ourselves, but also taking some responsibility for the behavior of our fellow commuters.

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