It has been 20 years. We were returning from a mother-in-law’s funeral in Philadelphia. As we entered Florida we made a decision to not continue on our usual route down Interstate 95, with all of the potential hazards that entails. Let’s just take our time, we thought, go on back roads and enjoy the ride through a part of the state we saw little of. This was before GPS, and our map showed that the most obvious route was U.S. 301, which meets I-95 north of the busy Jacksonville area, and heads toward the center of the state, going close to Gainesville. It looked like a relaxing route after a sad time in Philadelphia. We figured if it took too long we could always hook up with Florida’s Turnpike for the rest of the journey.
For an hour or so the decision met expectations. The road was not crowded and it was mostly through pleasant, undeveloped land. We congratulated ourselves on our choice. We had the van on cruise control at 55 mph, rolling along like a duck toward paradise.
We saw a sign with a lower speed limit and tapped the brake. There was a stop light in the distance and we glided toward it. It seemed an odd place for a light, or for a slower speed limit. There was nothing there to warrant either. That thought had barely crossed our mind when we saw the flashing light of a police car parked in the median ahead. As we stopped at the light, the police car made a U-turn behind us. We were caught speeding.
We did not even know where we were. It turned out to be the town of Lawtey, which we soon learned was a notorious speed trap, where the limit drops quickly so that anybody traveling at a normal speed does not have time to slow down. We protested that day; the wife even said we were coming from her mother’s funeral. The cop was not into sob stories. Lawtey is a town that has so little crime, the cops have to commit their own, which is how we felt about it then, and still do, 20 years later. We regard this as organized crime and it should be illegal for a hick town to support itself on traffic tickets. Especially when the victims are seeking a slower, calmer route than the busy interstates.
Our story got even more complicated. As furious as we were, we paid the ticket, which was something like $130 at the time – or at least we thought we had paid it, until we got a notice that our license had been suspended. We worked that out, but not without a lot of hassle. We called the state attorney general’s office, where we threw our press clout around. We told them we were close friends with Bob Butterworth, attorney general at the time. That wasn’t true, but we did meet him once. The chap we spoke to was most sympathetic. He knew all about Lawtey and other towns who preyed on drivers. We got the impression he wanted to do something about it. We expected to read any day that the cop who stopped us, and every other public official in the town, had been burned at the stake or suffered more severe punishment.
Nothing happened. We wrote about it and have revisited the subject over the years with the least provocation. Some time later, we called the Lawtey police, basically asking if they still had the speed trap. The lady who answered pretty much said yes, but she had to get off the phone suddenly. We heard somebody shouting in her office. It was undoubtedly the latest victim of this corruption threatening to shoot somebody.
We bring this up now because last week the Town of Waldo, a place near Lawtey with a similar speed trap, suspended its police chief after complaints from officers that they were forced to meet quotas in writing tickets. That is illegal and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating. The incident drew attention to Waldo’s (and Lawtey’s) reputation as two of the country’s worst speed traps. That reputation is so bad that Wikipedia, in its description of U.S. 301 in Florida, identifies those speed traps, in effect warning motorists to avoid those towns.
Too bad we did not have Wikipedia 20 angry years ago.