Since the mid-1960s, I have driven well over half a million miles on the state’s highways. In addition to the usual admonitions to drive safely and wear my seat belt, I have often heard another bit of sound advice from various sources over the years: “Watch out for speed traps.”

 

If you have never experienced a speed trap, consider yourself lucky. Organized by police departments under the guise of protecting their communities but serving primarily as a lucrative revenue generator for small-town budgets, such traps have caused many unsuspecting drivers to be pulled over by local officers and issued tickets with substantial fines.

 

There is something about this particular governmental travesty that rightfully infuriates us. It may have to do with being judged unfairly and having no way to prove your speed was within the acceptable range. Maybe it is the feeling of helplessness or the sense of being victimized as you sit in your car, assaulted by an embarrassing barrage of flashing lights, and try to remember if you actually missed a speed limit sign. More than likely, the ordeal leaves you with a bad impression of a community and a desire to never drive through that town again. Then your insurance company may add insult to injury by surprising you with a rate increase.

 

I am pleased to report the Arkansas General Assembly passed a law in 1995 designed to eliminate these highway holdups. Thanks to that legislative intervention, though such miscarriages of justice still exist in our fair state, they are not nearly as common as they once were.

 

Mountainburg, a small town on U.S. 71 conveniently located on the primary route to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, ran a speed trap operation for years. Way back in 1936, then-Attorney General Carl Bailey was stopped for an alleged speeding violation while driving through the community on the way to Fayetteville. Calling in some chits, Bailey got Mountainburg’s mayor removed from office, albeit temporarily. There is no telling how many hapless students, parents and Razorback fans contributed to the community’s general fund as they drove to and from campus and were nabbed by rapacious, radar-toting deputies. I know my wife and both sisters added to the city’s coffers, although I somehow escaped the Mountainburg indignity. I attribute it to my superior driving skills, but the pair offer another and more likely explanation — pure, dumb luck.

 

Several towns in southeastern Arkansas — notably Gould and Grady — also developed well-deserved reputations as speed traps, but few places in the state could compare to Gilmore, a northeast Arkansas community known far and wide for its generosity with speeding tickets. Nicely situated on U.S. 63, a prime corridor for Memphians and other travelers headed to the Ozarks, Gilmore began seriously tapping into the wallets of transient drivers in 1993. Protecting its citizenry of 331 souls, the Gilmore Police Department issued up to 450 speeding tickets a month.

 

State audits confirmed that speeding ticket revenues and associated court costs funded more than half the city’s budget. Those findings, combined with a litany of complaints from visitors passing through Gilmore, convinced the late State Sen. Jerry Bookout of nearby Jonesboro to introduce legislation aimed at curbing such scams, which he described as nothing more than legalized “bushwhacking.” His bill, signed into law in the spring of 1995, stipulates that speeding tickets can provide no more than 30 percent of a city’s budget. Things are much quieter in Gilmore these days.

 

Likewise, the town of Jericho, which is some 10 miles south of Gilmore, got in the news for the zealous work of its seven part-time police officers, who wrote hundreds of speeding tickets while ensuring the safety of its 119 residents. Shortly after a ticket-based melee broke out between one of the law enforcement officers and the volunteer fire department chief, who received a ticket the same day as his son, authorities came up with a unique solution — they simply abolished the police department.

 

By some accounts, Damascus, situated on the Faulkner/Van Buren county line some 20 miles north of Conway, has operated a speed trap for more than half a century on heavily traveled U.S. 65. The town of 385 residents employed a four-man police force in 2014, a crack team that wrote 2,032 speeding tickets. After years of complaints, the local prosecuting attorney investigated the situation, determining the city had violated the state’s speed-trap law and ordering its police force to cease patrols along all highways.

 

Meanwhile, the east Arkansas town of Parkin some 25 miles southwest of Gilmore has garnered attention due to its ever-vigilant police officers, who distributed over 2,600 speeding and other traffic-related tickets in a peak year while patrolling U.S. 64. Though the resulting fines made up a third of the city’s budget, the state’s speed trap legislation does not matter in this case. The law applies only to second-class cities, and Parkin is a first-class city, although I suspect there are 2,600 drivers who might feel otherwise.

 

Drivers beware.

 

backstoriesJoe David Rice, former tourism director of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, wrote Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people — a story to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.

 

Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon.com and the University of Arkansas Press.

 

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