If you take a leisurely stroll down Lawtey’s main street you will pass a ball field, an elementary school, City Hall, a post office a grocery store and a church.
Not that anybody strolls on Lawtey’s main street – aka U.S. 301. That would be like ambling through traffic hell.
Still, in a nominal concession to Lawtey’s pretense of actually being a “community,” the thousands of heavy trucks, pickups, SUVs and sedans which every day funnel through that small Columbia County town north of Gainesville are legally obliged to slow down from 60-plus to 45 MPH.
Not that many do. In autoAmerica, posted speed limits are deemed guidelines more than mandates.
Studies have shown, as Bryan Jones, a planner and engineer with Alta Planning + Design wrote recently for strongtowns.org, that most “motorists believe the posted speed limit is just the suggested maximum and more frequently treat it as the minimum, knowing that many law enforcement professionals and courts will not ‘strictly’ enforce the maximum posted speed limit but rather something 9-15 MPH over the posted speed limit.”
Which is why, if you know anything at all about Lawtey, you probably know that it has been branded a “speed trap” by the American Automobile Association. It’s an old rep – these days the town reportedly only writes about 15 tickets daily.
“We think it is a relic of the past,” Police Chief Shane Bennett told First Coast News last month.
Still, it remains Lawtey’s foremost, um, claim to shame.
The definition of “speed trap” being a town that insists on ticketing motorists for breaking the law.
The definition of “speed limit” being a law that may only be enforced up to a point – that point being where the collection of traffic fines becomes a “revenue stream.”
Which is ironic when you consider that one-third (and that’s a conservative estimate) of all traffic fatalities in America are due to speeding. To break that down, about 113,000 people in America died of an overdose of “speed” between 2005 and 2014.
Lawtey is exactly the sort of town that Florida urban planner Andrés Duany had in mind when he wrote “The Department of Transportation, in its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow, has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.” Other casualties of the traffic wars along US 301 alone might include Waldo and Hawthorne, small towns similarly robbed of any sense of community by some long ago traffic planner’s “single minded pursuit.”
But the truth is that even cities, like Gainesville, that have supposedly embraced “Vision Zero” plans to eliminate traffic fatalities are either powerless or unwilling to slow down traffic and thereby save lives.
We have no lack of “traffic calming” solutions, from narrowing or reducing traffic lanes, to using on-street parking, landscaping and other designs that make fast driving feel uncomfortable, to installing speed detection cameras and employing GPS technology.
No, what’s lacking is the political will, and the public support, to adopt life-saving constrains on the autoAmerican “right” to drive fast.
The other day I saw a corporate-owned fleet vehicle with a bumper sticker stating that the vehicle was being electronically monitored to ensure that its driver obeys the speed limit. Obviously the bumper sticker was meant to alert impatient motorists behind the fleet car that its driver wasn’t going to play ball.
Can you imagine the public outcry that would ensure if government adopted similar GPS technology to stop speeding?
No, consider Lawtey a Scarlet Letter example of a town that tried to keep motorists from killing each other and ended up being nationally shamed for it.
Because the truth is that we Americans have the need. The need for speed. No matter how many must die.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in The Sun on June 3, 2018.