In S. Florida, traffic laws often take back seat to fear

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

October 06, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- Sandy Stubbs, a Delta Air Lines flight attendant, runs red lights driving home from the airport late at night. Patti Cantwell, a doctor, didn't stop recently when her Jeep was bumped by a truck early in the morning. Both drivers broke the law, according to the Florida Driver's Handbook, the bible of state driving laws. The book states: Thou shalt not run a red light or leave the scene of an accident.

But following the recent killings of tourists on state highways, some south Floridians say they'd rather break the law than tangle with crooks. In this climate of fear, the driving rules we all grew up with are being ignored.

"I don't want to end up dead," said Ms. Stubbs, who started running red lights at night several years ago, after three men tried to jump into her car at an intersection.

Crime on Florida's roadways has forced motorists, police officers, judges and government leaders to stretch the limits of the law for the sake of public safety.

Obeying the old rules -- heed traffic lights, stop for accidents, pull over and nap if you get sleepy driving at night -- can make you a sitting duck.

"Years ago they'd tell you to pull over and take 40 winks if you were tired," Dade County traffic Judge Harvey Baxter said. "I won't do that anymore."

Yet the new guidelines aren't quite official rules, at least not yet. They're just recommendations, and police officers remain responsible for enforcing the real rules. Staying safe might get you a ticket.

Page 34 in the Florida Driver's Handbook gives this instruction for motorists involved in an accident: "Stop." It's a state law. Yet a pamphlet printed by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce warns tourists who drive in south Florida NOT to stop if bumped in traffic. They should keep driving until they find a police officer or public place.

Police officers say they're trying to be understanding.

"We look at a person's safety with far greater importance than we would property or traffic laws," Miami police spokesman David Magnusson said.

Police officers need to be flexible, he said. If a lost driver runs a red light in a dangerous neighborhood, an officer should give him a break, he said.

That doesn't mean police officers or judges are going to buy the "fear excuse" every time.

"If you run a light on [on a major street] at 3 p.m. and say you felt in danger -- that's B.S.," Mr. Magnusson said.

Judge Baxter thinks it's rarely appropriate and often dangerous to run traffic lights, but he admits that each case has to be judged on its merits.

"If you are in true fear, like someone approaches your car on foot or in another car, it may be justified," said Judge Baxter.

Even Jim Cox, director of Florida's Division of Driver Licenses, said it's sometimes OK to violate one of the laws in the booklet he prints.

"If my sister was driving in a dangerous area and was bumped, I would tell her to keep driving to a safe place," he said. "The proper thing to do may be to stop, but the common-sense thing is to protect yourself."

That's what Sandy Stubbs did a while back.

She and a girlfriend were driving on an expressway near the airport when a motorist rear-ended their car early one evening.

"Keep going. Keep going," Ms. Stubbs yelled. The women didn't stop and exited as soon as possible. They weren't followed, and the car suffered no damage.

"Chances are it was an innocent tap, but why take the chance?" Ms. Stubbs said.

Patti Cantwell, a doctor in Jackson Memorial Hospital's Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, doesn't take chances either.

She often leaves her Bonaventure home in Broward County before the sun rises and returns after dark. Going home, Dr. Cantwell sometimes uses a road that cuts through some of Dade County's toughest intersections.

"I don't hesitate to cruise through the lights," she said.

This attitude seems to be shared by more than south Floridians. One Canadian businessman who visits here said he always runs lights after midnight in some sections of Dade County.

Said Claude Frechette, a former El Portal resident now living in Ottawa: "Red lights are optional."

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