Even if crime isn't reduced, driving might be safer

September 20, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

NOW HERE'S AN idea that just might work. Even if it doesn't, it's worth a try. At best we may cut Baltimore's homicide rate and remove some dangerous criminals from our streets. At worst we may get better driving.

The idea comes from Mayor Kurt Schmoke, via Cleveland. Baltimore police will now nail those who violate traffic laws in the hopes of shaking loose drugs and illegal weapons. Cleveland adopted the policy of aggressive traffic enforcement. Its homicide rate dropped. The traffic enforcement program was one of many factors. It's high time the practice came to Baltimore. We should only have two worries.

The first is that the enforcement will focus on illegal guns only. Both Schmoke and police Commissioner Thomas Frazier have expressed their desire to "get guns off our streets." But we should all hope that if John Q. Citizen goes to the firing range and is stopped on his way home, he won't be charged with possession of a handgun he legally owns.

Our other worry should be the civil liberties issue. Schmoke, quoted in Friday's Sun, said aggressive traffic enforcement in Cleveland "allowed the police to make more stops that led to searches and seizures that led to both drugs and guns."

But traffic stops don't automatically lead to searches and seizures. (Unless, of course, the idiots in the car have guns or drugs in plain sight. And criminals, for the most part, are a notoriously goofy lot.) Police need consent to search vehicles if no arrest is being made. Clinton Coleman, the mayor's spokesman, said the mayor is sensitive to the civil liberties issue and was referring to legal searches and seizures only.

"But it's more than just writing tickets," Coleman said of the traffic enforcement effort. "It's about the interaction of police and citizens. It's about more police visibility on the streets. Citizens will feel safer."

Once the hoods and miscreants see more police on the street, their mentality will have to change, Coleman prophesied.

"They think they may be spotted and leave their drugs and guns at home," Coleman said.

But this isn't only an illegal guns and drugs issue. Driving in the Baltimore area has simply gotten downright awful. Reckless and stupid driving is like a disease that has reached epic proportions. Coleman said the mayor has noticed these drivers from hell.

"He's always been concerned about the red light running and the erratic driving," Coleman noted. And the stop sign running. ,, And the failure to yield the right of way. And the speeding. And the tailgating. Schmoke's noticed them. So has Coleman.

"I was coming down Franklin Street one morning," Coleman recalled. "There was a school bus behind me." Coleman went through a yellow light and noticed the bus driver run the red light. He thought the driver was going to rear-end him when the bus suddenly shifted and passed him doing 50 to 55 mph. An officer in an unmarked car nailed the bus driver for speeding.

Rob Weinhold, the Police Department spokesman, said cops in unmarked cars will be a significant part of the aggressive traffic enforcement campaign.

"There will definitely be marked and unmarked traffic enforcement," Weinhold assured Baltimore citizens. "The marked cars provide visibility in the neighborhoods. The unmarked car TTC sends a message." What's the message? That you never know when or where a Baltimore police officer will nail you for breaking the law.

The logic of more aggressive traffic enforcement is simple: if someone flagrantly shows disdain for traffic laws, he might show disdain for laws, period. That person running the traffic light, Weinhold noted, "might be fleeing the scene of a crime." Or he may be some arrogant drug dealer who figures the laws of the land don't apply to him. Or the person might just be a reckless driver.

Here's a way for sensible drivers -- Lord, let's hope that's still the majority of us -- can help the police. When we observe the idiots who run red lights, pass in no-passing zones, tailgate and persist in doing 45 in 30-mph zones we should take the tag numbers of those vehicles and report them to 311. If police get enough reports on the same vehicle over and over again, they can start looking out for the varmints.

Here's something police can do in addition to ferreting out guns and drugs: When they make a stop, send the driver's information on to the Motor Vehicle Administration to see if the insurance is valid. If the driver has no insurance, the MVA can revoke the driver's license and police can impound the vehicle. Uninsured drivers send a message that they don't really care about the law. Inevitably, they will drive like it.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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