St. Stephen police handing out no-point tickets

ST. STEPHEN, SC (WCSC) - ST. STEPHEN, SC (WCSC) - Speeders in St. Stephen are being caught off guard with a different kind of ticket that doesn't carry with it points on their licenses.

Drivers -- more than 33,000 in 2009 alone -- are being ticketed for careless operation. Debra Bell is one of those drivers.

"He gave me a ticket for careless operation," said Bell. "And I was like, 'What's that?'"

Bell admits she was driving too fast through St. Stephen when she was stopped by police, but she was surprised when, instead of a speeding ticket, she was handed a careless operation ticket. However, that ticket came with a hefty, $263 fine.

Bell was confused by the ticket, "thinking I must have hit something or somebody."

But she's not alone. In the St. Stephen traffic court, most of the defendants were there for the same charge. Many of the tickets were written along a stretch of Highway 52 where the speed dips to 35 miles per hour.

"If you do anything, pick up the phone and miss that 45 sign, you're in a 35 zone," said one driver.

Police chief John Waters says the speed limit is not controlled by police. "A lot of people think we lower the speed limit [to hand out more tickets]. We have nothing to do with it; the state of South Carolina does that," said Waters.

While tickets are up the discretion of the officer, Waters said drivers should be thankful for the careless operation charge because it doesn't add any points to their licenses.

"The reason most officers write careless operation is they're trying to do a favor for the driver," said Waters.

Bell said the ticketing officer in her case did tell her it was a favor, but Bell said she would rather have the points on her license and the money in her pocket. She thinks it's also a good way for the small towns to pad their revenues.

"It's a high payment ticket, so I'm not trying to be funny, but for small towns like this, it is a way to make money," said Bell.

Waters says it is a source of revenue, but the town doesn't get to take in the full price of the ticket. "Out of a $265 ticket, the town of St. Stephen gets $95," he said.

However, that's $3.1 million the town didn't have.

But is the higher ticket really doing drivers a favor?

Russ Dubinsky with the SC Insurance News Service said the four primary insurance companies in South Carolina regularly run motor vehicle reports to adjust rates. If a surge in pointed tickets show up in those reports, drivers could see a rate increase of up to 20 percent.

Dubinsky was quick to point out, however, that each insurance company is different and some may penalize drivers for tickets that don't carry points.

Strictly by the numbers, a typical driver would actually save several hundred dollars over the three years a point stays on his license, but it does mean parting with a larger sum of money at the onset.

It sounds like a great deal for drivers that could ultimately leave them with more money in the bank, but many drivers said it left them confused.

"It was like the ticket went away basically for me paying triple what the ticket cost," said one driver.

Most police officers said they only gave the careless operation tickets to in-state drivers because other states treat the tickets the same as a reckless driving ticket -- a six-point violation.

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