On Nov. 30, 2011, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper ticketed Brandon L. Maples for driving 111 mph on Interstate 44 in Comanche County.
A week later, another trooper cited Maples for traveling 101 mph in Grady County.
Then, in March, Maples received another ticket in Grady County, this time for doing 102 mph.
In every instance, Maples, 34, of Oklahoma City, was found guilty. He paid $475 in fines and hundreds of dollars more in court costs.
But despite accumulating three citations in less than four months for driving more than 100 mph, Maples was never charged with reckless driving, nor did he slow down.
In September, he was cited again for speeding, this time for driving 16 to 20 mph over the limit in Kay County.
He failed to appear for a court hearing and forfeited his bond. He could not be reached for comment.
An analysis by The Oklahoman has found that despite the deadly dangers of traveling so fast, speeding laws and prosecution appear weak in Oklahoma compared with some other states.
That’s led to cases such as Barry E. Wendt, 59, of Dewey, who had been cited eight times for speeding and twice for reckless driving before being ticketed in August 2010 for driving 103 mph. Ten months later, he was ticketed for driving 100 mph.
“Yes, I am a speed demon, there’s no doubt about it,” said Wendt, a retired radio disc jockey who drives a Corvette. “But I’m slowing down as I get older.”
About the analysis
The Oklahoman identified the issue of problem speeders after requesting information from the Department of Public Safety on citations issued for driving at least 100 mph on the state’s roadways.
The department provided 2,177 such citations issued between Jan. 1, 2010, and Oct. 4, 2012. The analysis then focused on two groups of citations: the 70 issued to drivers for traveling at least 120 mph, and the 50 issued to those who were cited more than once for driving at least 100 mph.
Two drivers landed on both lists: Daniel D. Clegg, 26, of Mannford, and Chad A. Cradduck, 23, of El Reno.
The maximum speed limit in Oklahoma is 75 mph.
A review of the selected cases found a legal system that, in many instances, allowed dangerous drivers to escape with little, if any, penalty.
Among the newspaper’s findings:
•In one out of four cases, violators either avoided prosecution, pleaded to lesser charges or received probation, which in some instances allowed them to have the citation removed from their public record.
•Authorities filed reckless driving charges only in about 10 percent of the cases. Some states mandate the often harsher penalty of reckless driving for those who exceed certain speeds. Oklahoma has no such mandatory requirement.
•In Oklahoma, drivers caught traveling at excessive speeds do not automatically lose their licenses. Some states have taken a tougher stance.
In Oklahoma, unsafe speed played a role in 8,924 crashes in 2011, 164 of which resulted in fatal injuries, according to statistics maintained by the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office.
Experts say traveling at such high speeds greatly reduces driver reaction time while increasing the distance needed to stop and the amount of energy released in a collision. A crash at 100 mph produces 6.25 times the crash energy as one at 40 mph, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“This type of crash is not survivable,” said Kristin Nevels, an institute spokeswoman.
Speed has been a factor in about a third of all fatal traffic crashes nationwide since 2001. In 2010, the latest year for which figures were available, 10,395 people died in such accidents.
Vehicle safety ratings are based on collisions that occur between 35 and 40 mph, according to the institute. A collision at any higher speed greatly reduces the effects of advanced engineering and safety features built into modern vehicles. Driver safety comes down to simple physics: higher speeds at impact result in large increases in injury severity.
“Your collision factor is so greatly enhanced that your probability for creating a collision that is life-threatening to you or others is greatly increased,” said Mike Bailey, division supervisor for driver compliance with the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety.
Why was it deferred?
In many of the cases reviewed by The Oklahoman, speeders caught a break.
In about a quarter of the cases, authorities either reduced, dismissed or declined to file charges, deferred or suspended sentences or granted expungements. That allowed many drivers to escape with little or no penalties, fewer points assessed against their driver’s license and, in some cases, to have the violation wiped from the public record.
In July, a trooper ticketed Christopher D. Degrate for traveling 141 mph on a motorcycle in Tulsa County. He was charged with driving under suspension, attempting to elude a police officer, operating a motorcycle without a motorcycle endorsement and reckless driving. It’s unclear from records why Degrate’s license was suspended at the time he was pulled over.
In November, he pleaded guilty to all counts, but Tulsa County Special Judge Sarah D. Smith deferred the sentence for two years. If Degrate meets the court-ordered conditions, the arrest will be dismissed and expunged from his public record. Smith said she did not remember the case but was surprised when told of her ruling.
“When you hear that speed, it’s very frightening. It endangers him and it endangers the public,” Smith said.
Smith said she doesn’t recall what, if any, extenuating factors led her to defer the sentence, which she termed unusual, but added she followed the recommendation of prosecutors.
“I don’t mind telling you I’m very concerned about the speed,” Smith said. “I just think it’s good to give a hard look at cases like this.”
Questions raised by The Oklahoman prompted Steve Kunzweiler, chief of the criminal division in the Tulsa County district attorney’s office, to have a conversation with the prosecutor who handled the Degrate case.
“My kind of rule of thumb was if you were going more than 30 over, I was going to charge you with reckless, I didn’t care what the trooper wrote,” Kunzweiler said. “If I had to do it all over again, I don’t know that I would be giving this guy the option of deferred judgment.”
Full force of law?
Kunzweiler said he was alarmed by The Oklahoman’s finding that so many 100-mph speeders had avoided the full force of the law.
“That disturbs me as a prosecutor,” he said. “It’s hard to even imagine doing that speed and having a good explanation for leniency.”
Degrate, 30, of Tulsa, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Degrate’s attorney, Jeff Krigel, of Tulsa, said Degrate’s deferred sentence was reasonable given the circumstances surrounding the ticket. He declined further comment.
In January 2010, a trooper cited Angela J. Huckaby for driving 105 mph in Pittsburg County.
Two months later, the state requested the case be dismissed. The judge who approved the dismissal has since died. Jim Miller, who was Pittsburg County district attorney at the time, said he could not recall the case but was surprised to hear it was dismissed.
“We had an internal policy that if you were doing more than 20 over, we didn’t cut deals,” Miller said. “For someone to be going that fast on the turnpike and have it dismissed, something had to be going on. If one of my associates did that, I guess they did it for a good reason.”
Whatever the reason, it didn’t slow down Huckaby.
The 28-year-old Okmulgee resident received two more speeding tickets in 2010, then was cited in June 2011 for driving 102 mph in Pushmataha County in her 2002 Toyota four-door. She was convicted and fined $135 and court costs.
Since 2002, Huckaby has been convicted three other times for speeding, twice for driving a defective vehicle and once for failure to have a minor under 13 wear a seat belt. Other charges of speeding, littering and failure to devote full time and attention to driving were dismissed.
Huckaby, 28, of Okmulgee, could not be reached for comment.
Some states are ending the practice of allowing speeders to avoid having violations appear on their driving records.
Illinois recently enacted “Julie’s Law,” which prohibited judges from giving probation to anyone charged with speeding 25 mph over the limit in urban areas and 30 mph or more over on highways.
The law was named for a 17-year-old girl who was killed when her car was hit by one driven by a 22-year-old man going at least 76 mph in a 40 mph zone before the crash. Court records show he’d received probation seven times, allowing him to keep his license, before the crash.
When is it reckless?
Despite the clear danger posed by drivers at such high speeds, authorities charged reckless driving in only 11 of the 118 cases reviewed by The Oklahoman. Four of those were cases where the driver also faced charges of attempting to elude police.
Reckless driving convictions carry harsher penalties than speeding tickets.
The maximum sentence for a first-time conviction for reckless driving is 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. A law that took effect Nov. 1, 2011, also requires a mandatory one-year license suspension. Called Aaron’s Law, it is named for Aaron Zentz, a 17-year-old from Yukon who was killed when a motorist ran a red light.
Comparatively, a first-time conviction for speeding more than 36 mph over the limit is an automatic $205 fine and up to 10 days in jail.
The decision to issue a reckless citation rests with the officer writing the ticket and the prosecutor who can upgrade speeding charges to reckless driving.
Department of Public Safety spokesman Capt. George Brown said driving 100 mph, while dangerous, isn’t always reckless.
“If somebody’s on the turnpike with 9-foot shoulders and there’s no traffic and they’re just speeding, well that’s just speeding unless there’s some circumstances that make it dangerous to the public,” Brown said.
When he patrolled, Brown used what he called “the trifecta” in determining whether to issue a reckless driving citation. If a person committed any combination of two moving violations in addition to speeding, such as frequent lane changes, weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating, or failing to signal, he would write a reckless driving ticket, he said.
Other states harsher
Several other states automatically issue reckless driving citations once drivers exceed certain speeds, including 80 mph in Virginia, North Carolina and Hawaii, 85 mph in Oregon, Connecticut and Arizona and 100 mph in Minnesota and California.
Other states issue reckless tickets once posted limits are exceeded by a certain amount, from 15 mph in Arkansas to 36 mph in North Dakota.
In California, drivers caught traveling at triple-digit speeds face a misdemeanor, an automatic 30-day license suspension, a fine and two points on their driving record. A California license can be suspended if a driver accumulates four points in 12 months.
In 2010, Georgia adopted a law that targeted “super speeders,” by levying an additional $200 fee on top of a speeding ticket for those caught doing more than 75 mph on a two-lane road or 85 mph on any road.
In the majority of the cases reviewed by The Oklahoman, the penalty faced by most drivers convicted of triple-digit speeding was the maximum $205 fine and about $206 in court costs.
Those drivers also likely received three points on their driving record.
A license can be suspended if a driver receives 10 points in five years. Points range from four for reckless driving to one for a number of violations, including improper lane usage and leaving a vehicle unattended with the engine running. The most points for speeding is three, assessed against those convicted of traveling in excess of 25 mph above the posted limit.
Few lose license
Drive off without paying for a tank of gas in Oklahoma, and you automatically lose your license for six months.
Push your speedometer past 100 mph, and all you may get is a speeding ticket. Unless the violation puts the driver over the 10-point limit, Oklahoma’s law does not call for a license suspension for excessive speeding.
Many states are taking a tougher approach.
North Carolina, California and New York are among the many states that require mandatory license suspension of drivers in cases involving high speeds. In New York, drivers who receive three speeding tickets within an 18-month period also have their licenses revoked.
Under Oklahoma’s 10-point system, drivers who exceed the five-year limit for the first time receive a 30-day suspension of their license and must pay a $75 reinstatement and processing fee. Higher point totals also lead to increased insurance rates. Repeat offenders face additional fees, longer suspensions and possible revocation of their licenses.
It’s unclear how many of those caught doing more than 100 mph in Oklahoma had their licenses suspended or revoked as a result, or even how many licenses the state has suspended in the past year.
The Department of Public Safety, which administers the license revocation program, declined to release the names or numbers of drivers with suspended licenses, saying it was not required to do so under open records law.