Beaufort News

Proposed legislation would allow police to dole out $150 warnings

Should police be able to issue $150 warning tickets to speeding drivers, protecting them from higher insurance premiums while fattening the wallets of governments?

A bill in the S.C. House of Representatives would allow police to write a warning ticket to speeders driving less than 10 mph over the speed limit. The motorist would not suffer points against his driving record, which can raise premiums. Cash-strapped state government and city halls would split the take.

"I'm thinking revenue -- by taking it out of 'Big Insurance' and putting it in the coffers of the state of South Carolina," said Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, one of the bill's two sponsors.

But the proposal also would require changing state law that now mandates all traffic tickets be reported to the state Department of Motor Vehicles and points assessed according to the law. Attorneys general have supported that for more than 20 years.

The bill also could signal a return to the days when police occasionally pocketed the fines, or towns withheld the state's share.

In 2006, the state investigated Bluffton for issuing town traffic tickets in place of some state traffic tickets. Drivers could plead guilty to a town charge of careless operation of a vehicle instead of the violation originally charged. That meant a higher fine but no points on their driving records. The town kept all the money. Bluffton eventually agreed to pay the state $471,832 for fines not collected.

If enacted, the proposed law could raise big bucks for the state and its cities and towns.

Already, police can write tickets under local laws for "careless driving" or "careless operation." The tickets carry no points, and the fine depends on each town's or county's law, said DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks.

Last year, police across the state wrote 26,442 such tickets, she said.

The Ridgeland Police Department uses the same charge for violations captured by its traffic cameras on Interstate 95. Speeding drivers are being cited for violating a town ordinance rather than state speeding law, and they do not receive points on their driving records if they choose to pay the careless-operation fine. The town has remitted its share of the ticket payments to the state, its officials say.

Bluffton, Beaufort and Port Royal also have careless-operation ordinances, although law-enforcement officials in those towns say that charge is not usually made if a driver also violated the state's speeding law. Beaufort County and the Town of Hilton Head Island have no such ordinances.

Rutherford, an attorney, said the warning ticket his bill would create would be an alternative to careless-driving offenses for low-speed violators. He maintains that drivers would be willing to pay a much higher fine to avoid insurance points.

The current fine is at least $15 and a maximum of $25.

But an insurance-industry trade group said that points no longer raise premiums the way they once did. Factors such as driving record, miles driven and where a motorist lives are bigger considerations, said Russ Dubisky, director of the S.C. Insurance News Service. "There's no such thing as insurance points anymore," he said.

The current bill to allow warning tickets is not the first attempt at such legislation.

State Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, sponsored a bill in 2009 that would have allowed police officers to write warning traffic tickets that carry $80 fines but no points on driving records.

The bill didn't make it out of committee. The concern was it would have encouraged police departments in rural areas near tourist destinations or major highways to pull over people going slightly above the speed limit in an attempt to generate revenue, Herbkersman had said.

Rutherford's current bill, H3157, co-sponsored by Garry R. Smith, R-Simpsonville, has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, according to the General Assembly's website.

Staff of The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette contributed to this report.