Road less — and more quickly — traveled
Police see increase in people driving at high speeds across the country
In his 19 years as a Michigan State trooper, Lt. Brian Oleksyk has never seen a speeding citation for someone traveling at 180 miles per hour.
That is, until two weeks ago, when troopers stopped a man in a Dodge Challenger going that fast on a stretch where 70 mph was the speed limit in Monroe County.
“It’s totally outrageous,” Oleksyk said. “That’s the highest speed I’ve ever heard of.”
The offender, who was cited for doing more than 25 mph over the speed limit, allegedly told police that he was driving that fast with another vehicle on the highway, Oleksyk said. He said should someone be involved in a crash at that speed, the only likely outcome is fatal.
An increase in people driving at high rates of speed is a problem Michigan troopers have been dealing with since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Oleksyk said.
“We want the public to know that just because there’s a pandemic going on and warmer weather’s coming, it doesn’t give you the right to drive at those excessive speeds,” he said.
For folks who feel cooped up the last two months, an open road and significantly less traffic may seem tempting — but don’t do it, police warn.
Earlier this month, Utah Highway Patrol impounded a Porsche 911 that was traveling at 148 mph, according to Lt. Nicholas Street, who said he’s seen an uptick in 100-plus mph speeds across the state.
“Anecdotally, I’m also seeing more pursuits initiating from our troopers than I recall from times past,” Street said in an email. “Also, dispatchers are reporting that they are receiving more calls from the public reporting reckless/aggressive drivers during the COVID-19 restrictions time frame.”
Street said one of their troopers in Salt Lake County cited five motorists in one weekend for speeds over 100 mph.
“When I worked in Salt Lake County in 2011-2012, I stopped four cars over 100 mph during that entire 2-year period,” Street said.
The fastest speed for which Iowa State Patrol issued a citation in the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic was 147 mph, according to Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Alex Dinkla.
“They were just running errands around the city,” he said in a recent interview.
The fastest speeds across his state were greater than 130 mph, though the fastest legal speed limit on state highways, Dinkla said, is 70 mph.
“These are speeds we’re getting not only on interstates but two lane roads, too,” he said. “It’s a little bit of everything, but most are passenger vehicles.”
Overall, they’ve seen a 46 percent increase in speed citations equal or greater to 100 mph since March 1, he said, and a 41 percent increase in speeds 25 mph over the speed limit or greater.
Dinkla said he’s not sure why there’s such a large increase in “egregious speeds,” because everything else is down, including passenger vehicle travel, which on average is down about 50 percent since the pandemic started. Crashes are also down and fatalities to date are down by 17 when compared with last year.
“We’ve heard several different excuses,” Dinkla explained when talking about what offenders have typically said after being pulled over. “But the number one is, ‘We didn’t think you were actually out here patrolling.”
Indiana State Police Sgt. Ron Galaviz said that’s a misconception his troopers have heard, too, despite hearing a number of additional excuses for the speed increases they’ve seen.
Just last week, a Minneapolis man gave Indiana State Police a unique excuse for leading them on a high-speed pursuit in Elkhart County. Police said the 25-year-old man was driving his Mustang at a speed greater than 120 mph on a 70 mph highway, and refused to pull over or stop for police, according to an April 23 news release. Police had to use stop sticks twice before they were able to arrest him.
When they took him into custody, he told police he did not stop because “he thought the troopers wanted to race,” according to the news release.
Galaviz said that across Indiana, people seem to be taking advantage of less traffic while increasing their speeds.
“We still take this very seriously,” Galaviz said. “It’s still being enforced. It’s obviously extremely dangerous, not only for themselves, but they’re putting other people on the roadways in danger. There’s no excuse.”
In Ohio, troopers have had drivers use COVID-19 to try to get out of a ticket, according to Lt. Craig Cvetan with the Ohio State Highway Patrol. In early March, an officer had pulled someone over for speeding, and the man behind the wheel told the officer that he had tested positive for the virus, Cvetan said, hoping the reasoning would get him out of a ticket.
The officer notified emergency management and the state’s Department of Health, Cvetan said. The DOH, in an attempt to track cases, then made contact with the speeder.
“That person then provided fictitious information about when and where they got tested,” Cvetan said in a recent interview.
When the DOH discovered the information given to them was false, they notified police, who handed out additional charges to the offender.
In Virginia, anything over 80 mph or 20 mph over the speed limit is considered reckless driving, but they’ve still seen an uptick in people hitting speeds over 100 mph, according to Virginia State Police Sgt. Brent Coffey.
He said troopers have maintained visibility throughout the state by issuing speeding tickets and reminding drivers “that an open road is not an open invitation to speed.”
From January to April 23, there have been 224 traffic deaths across the state, compared with 226 from the same time frame last year, according to preliminary data, Coffey said.
Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller said she would have expected the fatalities to decrease because there is less traffic on the roads.
“Unfortunately, our fatalities are not down,” she said. “Overall, crashes have decreased, but the fatalities have not gone down, and a lot of them are due to speed and failure to buckle up.”
In Kansas, there are now more deaths related to COVID-19 than there are traffic in 2020, according to public information officer for Northcentral Kansas Ben Gardener. He recently posted on Twitter that so far this year, there have been 110 traffic deaths in the state, and 124 coronavirus deaths.
If people don’t slow down, however, those numbers could change. Gardener said that even though traffic in his state is lighter, people are traveling much faster than usual.
“Our troopers are aware of it, and we’re addressing and giving tickets,” Gardener said.
For some states, a significant drop in traffic has resulted in few tickets across the board. That’s why New York State’s March speeding tickets were down 38 percent from last year, according to Beau Duffy, director of public information for the New York State Police.
Pennsylvania speeding tickets are also down significantly. In fact, crime in general has dropped about 60 percent across the state during the pandemic, according to Trooper Brent Miller, director of the PSP communications office.
In March, Pennsylvania troopers issued 131 citations for speeds over 100 mph, an increase from the same month last year, which had 123 citations, Miller said. April saw a significant decrease, however. From April 1 to 26, they issued 69 of those citations, compared with last year’s 151 in the same timeframe.
According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol Statistical Analysis Unit, speeding citations for 20 mph over the limit were down by nearly 5,000, during the timeframe of March 23 to April 19, when compared with 2019 and 2018. However, the 100 mph citations for the same timeframe in 2020 matched 2019’s 130 citations and 2018’s 159 citations.
Lt. Cvetan said those numbers could have been affected by the fact that patrol officers aren’t spending as much time on lesser traffic offenses. He said patrol officers, typically dedicated to highways, have been pulled in other pandemic-related directions in the past few months, like transporting N95 masks for sterilization and transporting food supplies for Meals on Wheels programs.
He said they’re doing more rest area checks and they’ve been helping with perimeter and security checks at correctional institutions.
“Because we’ve been tasked with other things, some of those lower traffic violations, they’re not necessarily focusing on right now,” Cvetan said. “These are unprecedented times for all law enforcement. We’re doing things we normally wouldn’t do.”
Gardener said that Kansas troopers were already being very careful when approaching vehicles at a traffic stop, but now, COVID-19 is another consideration. He said to maintain social distance, troopers are staying further away from car windows, or approaching offenders from the passenger side of the car.
They’re also writing down information from licenses and registrations, instead of taking those items into their vehicles, Gardener said. They all have masks and gloves to use should they need to come in close contact with the public during incidents or arrests, he said.
“Our day is ever changing,” Gardener said. “We’re going to adapt to the new challenges to make sure our roadways are safe.”