Urban Speed Traps

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  3/26/2006

This story, regrettably, must be told in the first person.

At the start, it should be said, without any desire to tempt fate, I have a perfect driving record. Which isn't to say that I never lean on the gas.

In the city, where a mile's drive can feel like a season of your life, this hadn't been a problem. Until recently.

I was on my way to a conference last month when I found myself caught in morning traffic. My car crawled along Storrow Drive like it was baseball season.

At the Charles Street turnoff, I waited in another line of cars backed up by a long red light. When I finally crossed the construction-filled intersection and made the sharp turn onto the Longfellow Bridge, I saw only open pavement, an uncluttered pair of lanes that might have been a runway.

I took off.

By the time I reached the other side, my odometer had hit 50 miles per hour. Clear of traffic and only a block from my appointment, I felt good to be home free.

Then, from the corner of my eye, I noticed someone in the middle of the road, frantically waving at me.

A man was pointing something that looked like a gun.

My first impulse was to speed up, but I was coming to a light. Then I realized the gesticulating stranger was wearing a uniform.

He was a cop.

Holding a radar gun.

Waving me over to the side of the road.

As he walked over to my window and asked for my license and registration, I had trouble processing what was happening: a speed trap in the middle of the city?
In a metro area where walking can be quicker than driving and local streets often look like parking lots, a speeding ticket is not uncommon. In the past three years, on speeding tickets alone, Boston cited 30,195 drivers for violating limits; Brookline issued 22,295 tickets; Somerville ticketed 6,550 drivers; and Cambridge stopped 3,837 people -- one-third at the bottom of Longfellow Bridge.

"We don't do this for revenue; it's about responding to complaints," says Cambridge Police Lieutenant Jack Albert, commander of his department's traffic-enforcement unit. "We try to target the gateway streets -- Main Street, Brattle, Concord Avenue, Huron Avenue, Western Avenue to be visible as people come into the city. We want them to know we enforce traffic regulations."

Officers in Boston, who last year issued 8,445 speeding tickets, or 13 percent of the city's 63,319 moving violations, said the department uses "targeted enforcement" from crash reports to determine where to monitor speed. The effort, they said, is at least one reason the number of people who have died as a result of car crashes in Boston has fallen to its lowest level in a decade, from 27 in 1995 to 20 in 2001 to 8 in 2005.

The department has also posted electronic speed-monitoring signboards along Rutherford Avenue in Charlestown, Tremont Street in the South End, Commercial Street in the North End, Warren Street in Roxbury, and Dorchester Avenue, among others.

"We've had a crackdown on speeding, red-light violations, and erratic driving," says Officer Michael McCarthy, a police spokesman. "It's a citywide effort that involves more enforcement with radar."

What about the many city streets without posted speed limits?

"Even if streets don't have posted limits, we expect people to know that the speed limit in a thickly settled area is 30 miles per hour," McCarthy says. "We don't need signs on every street. Common sense should prevail."

In Brookline, where police cited 5,885 drivers for speeding last year, officers say they pull over most people during rush hour on Beacon Street, westbound in the evening and eastbound in the morning. They also stop many drivers on Route 9, westbound, "when the traffic isn't too bad," says Captain Michael Gropman, who oversees the town's traffic division.

"It's kind of ridiculous the way people drive," says Gropman, adding the community has pressured officers to clamp down on speeding. "We do it an awful lot because we have a very vocal constituency, and because we're a cut-through to Boston. Everyone's in a rush to get to work."

Somerville officers say they mainly target Middlesex Avenue by the Assembly Square Mall, Myrtle Street near Washington Street, and Packard Avenue by Powder House Boulevard. Together, the locations last year accounted for more than half of the city's 2,110 speeding tickets.

The most likely place to get a ticket in Somerville last year was on Middlesex Avenue, one of the city's few straightaways, where officers stopped 567 drivers for exceeding the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit. "It's a heavily traveled road near the courthouse, so we're down there a lot," says Officer Rick Gilberti, who works in the city's traffic division.

State Police also stop hundreds of local drivers every year, everywhere from Storrow Drive to Memorial Drive to the Longfellow Bridge. Troopers say they can't provide the number of speeding tickets they issue on local streets, but many of the aggrieved drivers who receive them end up in Cambridge District Court. The tickets start at a state-mandated $100 -- which includes a $50 fee that goes toward rehabilitating those with head injuries -- and rise $10 per mile per hour after the first 10 over the speed limit. Getting stopped going 20 miles per hour over the limit, for example, translates into a $200 ticket -- and often hundreds of dollars more in insurance penalties.

Which explains why Robert Moscow is a busy man. For the past 15 years, he has served as clerk magistrate at Cambridge District Court, where he hears about 100 appeals every week, many of them from drivers stopped on the Longfellow Bridge.

"People get irrational and really mad," he says. "I've had people spit at me and curse me out. I try to be polite."

Moscow has heard all the excuses, from "I was late for an appointment" or "I had to go to the bathroom" to "I was racing the train over the bridge" or "The person in front of me was going too slow, so I had to pass him."

Few excuses ever fly, Moscow says, though if someone can prove they had a medical emergency, he'll review the evidence. "I had a woman show a prosecutor evidence her daughter was sick," he says. "We were willing to accept that."

One driver who is keenly aware of the speed limit at the spot where Cambridge officers stop most of their speeders -- the bottom of Longfellow Bridge -- is Judge George R. Sprague, who crosses nearly every day from Beacon Hill to Cambridge District Court, where he often hears appeals for speeding tickets.

"I go by very discreetly at 30 miles per hour -- and almost everyone is passing me," Sprague says. "Sometimes they beep at me for going too slowly."

He knows what's often waiting at the end of the bridge. When he sees speeding drivers pass, he says to himself: "I'll probably be seeing them in court soon."

Sprague has had people appeal for allegedly going anywhere from 40 to 75 miles per hour. Sometimes he dismisses their cases (reasons ranging from no signs posted on the bridge to one driver who claimed to have been unfairly singled out for going 39 miles per hour).
But even if he can't dismiss a case, he sympathizes with many of the drivers. "I think 30 miles per hour is too slow," he says. "It's a straightaway. But the law is the law, whether I agree with it or not."
The speed limit on the Longfellow Bridge, which hasn't changed for decades, factors in the merging traffic from Memorial Drive, the pedestrians crossing Main Street, and among other things, the slope of the road, say police and Vanessa Gulati, a spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which oversees the bridge.
"Our engineers determine the speed they think is safe," she says.
The officer who pulled me over had just waved over another scofflaw. We idled on the side of the road for what seemed an eternity as he and another officer sat in their cruiser, hidden in an alley at the end of the bridge.
As I sat stewing, I thought about my insurance, my wallet, my perfect driving record.
I felt like a criminal; I felt like running.
A few minutes later, the officer returned with a white piece of paper, covered in ink.
I apologized.
He told me I should be more careful.
Then he handed me the citation.
It, thankfully, was a warning.
When not in his car, obeying speed limits, David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.
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