Tickets bring cash, but police focus on safetyBY HURST LAVIANA
The Wichita Eagle
Wichita police Officer Brian Safris pulled his patrol car to the curb at Douglas and Topeka and focused his attention on the crosswalk at the east end of the intersection. "You see that white line?" he asked.
"That's like the line of scrimmage right there. That's what I'll be watching.... This is like a front row seat."
With Safris at the scene, the driver of any car that noses across the line after the light turns red risks being hit with a $145 ticket.
So far this year, no Wichita police officer has written more tickets than Safris, a 13-year veteran. Since 2005, no intersection has yielded more red-light tickets than Douglas and Topeka. It was only a matter of time before someone got caught.
On a typical day in Wichita, Municipal Court records show, police cite Wichita drivers for 287 traffic violations — including 81 for speeding, 12 for improper turns, 10 for inattentive driving, seven for red light violations and seven for running stop signs.
Those tickets generate about $12 million a year — $32,800 a day — in traffic fines. While many drivers see the tickets as a way for the city to raise money, police say traffic citations are important public safety tools that can change the behavior of drivers who flout traffic laws.
At any downtown light, Safris estimates, about 1 in 5 red light cycles will result in someone running the light. At Douglas and Topeka last week, it took six cycles before a woman in a silver Lexus crossed the scrimmage line after the light turned red. She accepted her ticket gracefully.
"What's it going to cost me?" she asked Safris.
"They recently increased the fine, but what it was increased to, I don't know," he said. "I know that's not what you wanted to hear."
"How about a warning for being an extremely nice person?" the woman asked.
"Sorry, no warnings today," he said.
Court records show that Wichita police over the past 4 1/2 years have written tickets at all hours of the day to drivers of all sorts of vehicles — including one hearse, two police cars, six limousines and 114 school buses. Officers also cited drivers of 1,406 motorcycles, 14,050 vans, 14,726 SUVs, 30,683 pickups and 112,724 passenger cars.
Moving violations were issued to drivers of two Rolls Royces, two Bentleys, seven MGs, eight Alfa Romeos, 38 Coopers, 917 Volvos, 3,051 Cadillacs, 8,248 Dodges, 19,480 Fords and 20,138 Chevrolets.
During the 4 1/2 year period, 39 drivers — four of them women — were cited for exceeding 100 mph. Four drivers — all on motorcycles — were clocked above 118 mph.
The fastest speed — 144 mph — was recorded on K-96 between Oliver and Woodlawn shortly before midnight on Aug. 31, 2007. The 27-year-old driver was fined $541.
Safris, a native of Iowa, came to Wichita with the Air Force 14 years ago and now considers the city his home. For the past five years he's worked in traffic, and he's become one of the city's most prolific ticket writers.
He's written more than 2,000 tickets in each of the past two years and is on a pace this year to exceed 2,500.
Safris said he likes identifying traffic problems and finding ways to correct them.
"The thing with traffic is it affects everybody," he said. "It crosses every boundary, every border. ... I enjoy being able to go out and make a difference.
"It's just that the smallest mistake can sometimes create the biggest wreck."
In addition to tickets, Safris gives his share of warnings, though there is no formula that determines which a driver will receive.
"It just depends," he said. "If I get a priority call, then yes, I'm going to the priority call, and you get a warning," he said. "I get a little bit soft around the holidays. Sometimes you can tell somebody just needs a break."
Don't expect many warnings at Douglas and Topeka.
"Downtown is my primary focus, and I'm not as forgiving there," he said. "There's a high concentration of traffic and pedestrians."
Safris said some drivers accept a ticket graciously.
"There's a certain percentage — 5 percent maybe — who say, 'Yes, you're right; I did go through that light.' Or, 'I know I was speeding; I'm late.' "
It's far more common to find drivers who offer an excuse.
"You hear some strange ones," he said. "'I have to go to the bathroom' — that's a pretty frequent one. Or, 'I didn't see the sign.' A lot of people like to focus on what other drivers are doing —'How come you didn't stop that other driver and you stopped me?' "
Every month, the Police Department's planning and research section sends the Patrol South Bureau a fresh list of high-accident locations. Safris pulls the accident reports from problem areas and looks for trends.
If the wrecks are being caused by people running a stop sign, he'll write stop-sign tickets. If following too closely is the problem, he tickets tailgaters.
Safris also keeps up on what's going on in his bureau. When construction started recently on the interchange at 47th Street South and I-135, a stretch of 47th Street South was turned into a 30 mph construction zone. He's been spending a lot of time there.
"The first month is critical, to let drivers know we're going to be out there," he said.
"You've got a lot of construction workers walking around in that area. You've got those guys standing next to the road, and you've got people going by at 45 mph."
He said drivers eventually get the message.
"You go out one day write 20 tickets for speeding, then go out the next day and write 20 more," he said. "Then on the third day you might write 15, and on the fourth day you might get 12. You will notice a decrease."
Wichita police said that one of the worst traffic problems this year has been on Kellogg.
In July, a month-long crackdown on speeders and aggressive drivers on Kellogg resulted in the issuance of 1,771 tickets — more than 1,000 for speeding.
The crackdown prompted one caller to The Eagle's Opinion Line to label the effort "the Kellogg fundraiser."
Municipal Court records show that during the month, police cited 2,199 drivers on Kellogg or at Kellogg intersections. Fines from those tickets totaled $255,496.50.
Police Capt. John Speer, who oversees the Patrol South Bureau, said police don't benefit directly from the fines because the money goes into the city's general fund. He said the only reason police write tickets is to promote public safety.
"We're trying to save peoples' lives," he said. "We're trying to make the roads safer for the public. Our goal is to correct behavior.
"We do enforcement actions to send a message that what you're doing is contributing to the problem, and there is a consequence for that."
Speer noted that only seven of the 130 commissioned officers based at the Patrol South Bureau are assigned to traffic duty.
"If the sole purpose was to generate revenue, one would think we would assign many, many more people to do this," he said.
Kellogg Drive tickets
Court records show that the biggest single day of the crackdown occurred on July 23, when police issued 185 citations for improper right turns at Kellogg Drive and Broadway.
Those tickets alone brought in more than $17,000 in fines. The second-biggest crackdown — 141 citations — occurred at the same intersection a week earlier.
Safris said that the month before the crackdown, 13 accidents occurred on that stretch of road.
"When you have 13 car wrecks in one month, you have to do something," he said. "That's too many people getting hurt, too much property damage."
A review of the accident reports, he said, showed that many of the accidents were caused by drivers making right turns from Broadway onto Kellogg Drive as they prepare to travel west on Kellogg.
A city ordinance is clear on the issue: "Both the approach for a right turn and a right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway."
At the start of rush hour on Wednesday, Safris drove his patrol car onto the median on the southeast corner of Topeka and Kellogg Drive. He pointed the nose of his patrol car at the intersection of Broadway and Kellogg Drive.
A camera in the car recorded the activity as driver after driver made a right turn onto Kellogg Drive — not by pulling into the right-hand lane, but by pulling into the center or far-left lane.
Safris, working on foot, stepped into the road and stopped a black Camry that had turned into the center lane. He also stopped a red Chevrolet station wagon that turned into the far-left lane.
As he wrote the tickets, the camera continued to record a stream of cars making illegal turns.
"You can't catch 'em all," Safris said after returning to his patrol car.
Reactions to tickets
Some of those who got tickets on July 23 had mixed reactions about the crackdown. Melissa Alley said she was when surprised when an officer stopped her.
"He said, 'Do you know what you got pulled over for?' and I said, 'No, I don't,' " she recalled.
Alley said she realized her mistake when the officer pointed it out. She only half-heartedly defended her driving.
"If you're in the lane I was in and you want to get on Kellogg, you merge expeditiously — or you end up in the right-hand lane," she said.
As most drivers know, the right-hand lane on that stretch of Kellogg Drive quickly turns into a right-turn-only lane.
A significant portion of the cars exiting Kellogg are maneuvering to get into that right-turn lane as they head for downtown Wichita.
"I thought I was being courteous by getting out of their way," Alley said.
Alley said it was probably good that 185 drivers now know the law for making right-hand turns. She didn't sound upset about the ticket.
"You know, I didn't want to make a fuss over it, and I didn't get cranky about it,'' she said. "The law is the law."
Jeff Chambers was less forgiving.
"I haven't gotten a ticket in years, and this one came out of the blue," he said. "But what can you do? I'm not one to argue with our men in blue. I paid it the next day."
Chambers defended his driving.
"I was heading west, and there was a car in the first lane turning into a business, so I went into the next lane," he said. "And then I signaled and went into the far left lane. It was a three-step move.
"There was someone in the right lane, so I went into the middle lane, then signaled and moved over again."
He said he was frustrated by the experience.
"It was a turning violation, for crying out loud," he said. "They write you a ticket for $80, then they pat themselves back for the number of tickets they've written."
He said he's not a big fan of police traffic crackdowns.
"They're just cash cows for the city," he said.Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6499 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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