The city of Damascus is in the news as the state police have been called in to determine if the town is a speed trap.
Damascus is bisected by the Van Buren County line, with half the city in Faulkner County, the other half in Van Buren County.
Cody Highland, 20th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney sent a letter Monday, June 20, to state police director William Bryant requesting the investigation. The investigation is permitted per the Arkansas “Speed Trap” Statute which allows an audit of cities accused of being speed traps.
“We received complaints from citizens and communication from the city itself who welcomed the investigation to reach a definitive determination on the issue. The outcome will be driven by the numbers gathered by the Arkansas State Police when plugged into the formula set out in state law. The public policy underlying the “speed trap law” is to ensure we keep the focus on public safety and away from simply creating another revenue stream for municipalities,” Highland stated.
Damascus City Attorney Beau Wilcox said the investigation is an opportunity to bring several factors into the light. Both he and Highland, and others, get repeated phone calls as motorists complain about Damascus speeding tickets. The investigation is “… the only way to put this to bed,” he said.
Wilcox did express dismay over various journalism outlets sensationalizing Highland’s request for investigation, including one of which making light of a “$2 million in revenue” figure. The $2 million, Wilcox said, reflected several years of ticket revenue, a fact left out in that outlet’s reporting and instead sensationalizing the million figure.
The investigation, however, has its own problems, both to some vagueness in the way the legislation regarding speed traps is written, and in the unique position of Damascus in writing tickets for speeding, he said. On one hand the numbers are straight-forward, and when cities are investigated red flags are raised of tickets are being written for vehicles travelling less than 10 mile per hour over the speed limit. Wilcox did not see a problem here, as tickets will show being written for cars going 15 or more mile per hour over the speed limit, he said.
The second point, however, is where potential for confusion exists, as the investigation looks at how much traffic tickets generate in city revenue, an accounting exercise. This would include tickets for things other than speeding, which in turn is a measure of traffic revenue as a speed trap, but speeding as only one of the ways revenue from tickets is generated. As such there are “arguable margins in the statute,” Wilcox said.
In the case of Damascus the revenue portion is made complex simply by its nature of a town, Wilcox said. First is the revenue sources in Damascus. Its water system, he points out, is a major revenue producer for the city. A second revenue generator has been the city’s tax base, which is growing as more business’s open, he said.
Second is simple the way look at Damascus as being or not being a speed trap not just by statutory measures, but by intent.
Any number of people look at the city and report having driven through it for years and never having gotten a ticket. But others, calling “speed trap,” are those who have made as few as one trip through the town and gotten a speeding ticket. But this, Wilcox said, is to miss the big picture. Highway 65 runs through Damascus five lanes wide, with highways intersecting it in town, plus business’s along its path, and open highway north and south of town, and with no stoplights in town. Slowing down in Damascus is simply a matter of safety for others on the road and not especially encouraged by the highway running through it.
Still, critics point out the Greenbrier, the next town to the south, doesn’t write as many speeding tickets. This despite Greenbrier getting the same traffic, including just-off-the Interstate tourists on their way to, for example, Branson, Missouri.
This is a false calculation, Wilcox said. First of all Greenbrier is a much larger town and has a range of traffic lights, all of which impact traffic flow. Making it is unfair to use a town’s size in its measure as a speed trap, Wilcox said.
Regardless of the gray areas in the statute, both the mayor and city council of Damascus are in favor of the audit, Wilcox said.