Editorial: State must clarify rules on cost of speeding classes

Published 9:23 am Tuesday, September 3, 2013

You’re driving down the highway, minding your own business at 67 mph in a 55-mph zone, when flashing lights appear behind you. You pull over, dig out your license and proof of insurance and hope against hope that you’ll escape with a warning.

No such luck — but the sheriff’s deputy doesn’t merely give you a ticket. He also hands you a brochure that explains your options: Pay the ticket, or show up on a Wednesday evening for a two-hour “Safe Driving Class.” It’ll still cost you $125 (a whopping $2 less than the ticket), but your insurance company won’t find out. And besides, every nickel of your money will support the local sheriff’s department, rather than going off to the state government. That’s a good thing, right?

Maybe. But maybe not. There’s something unseemly — or at least mildly troubling — about the Safe Driving Class in Wabasha County. It’s the latest cause of dissension among county board members, and it has now resulted in a lawsuit.

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Sheriff Rodney Bartsch makes no apologies for the fact that this class has netted more than $400,000 for his department, money that otherwise would have gone to the state. And he doesn’t dispute that the program functions in a legal gray area. The state auditor insists that the program in Wabasha County is illegal, but it lacks the resources to take enforcement action.

Wabasha isn’t the only county in which some drivers are given an offer they can’t afford to refuse. Similar programs are found in Goodhue County, Sherburne County and Kandiyohi County and as many as 25 other counties across the state. The hook is always the same: If you come to class, your offense will never appear on your driving record, and your insurance company will be none the wiser.

There almost certainly is some value in these classes. Remember when driver’s education was taught in high school, and a police officer would come in and told stories or showed pictures of what happens when two speeding cars collide head-on and neither driver is wearing a seatbelt?

That’ll tend to slow you down a bit, even if you’ve been driving for 20 years.

The problem, however, is the state’s refusal (or apparent inability) to provide clear rules about these classes. Legislation passed in 2009 was meant to clarify the conditions under which local “administrative fines” can be levied for low-level traffic violations, such as speeding less than 10 mph over the limit. Bartsch and officials in other counties say the new law (which limits the fees and requires a cut for the state) doesn’t apply because their programs are diversionary, not administrative.

What we’re left with is a patchwork system in which some counties are pulling in a sizable windfall from traffic violators, while those that adhere to what appears to be the letter of the law are still sending that money straight into the state’s general fund. And, from a fairness standpoint, it’s worth noting that drivers who are cited in the rule-following counties see their insurance rates go up, too.

So, although we suspect that there’s more than a little bad blood involved in the Wabasha County lawsuit, we’re hopeful that the attention it brings to safe driving programs will result in some clarity and uniformity across the state.

We’re not opposed to a system in which more of a traffic violator’s fees and fines stay in the local area. We like the idea of giving people a second chance before raising their insurance rates; however, we object to a system in which some counties are rewarded for pushing the legal envelope, while the rest must be seen as rule-following chumps.

— Rochester Post-Bulletin, Aug. 26