Police Chief M.M. "Butch" Jordan--also known as "the Silver Bullet"--sits in his silver Crown Victoria with the blue light on top, watching the traffic go by on U.S. 301. His laser radar equipment is switched off for the moment, his video camera blank, but he can still spot a speeder with a practiced eye.
Jordan, 61, a gravelly voiced, chain-smoking, no-nonsense lawman, presides over this North Florida hamlet that proudly holds a thankless title: It is the nation's reigning speed-trap town, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA).
"If they can't slow down to 45 miles an hour for a one-mile stretch, then they need a ticket," Jordan harumphed one morning this week, undaunted by the label. "We're just doing our job."
He and other officials of Lawtey, population 900, are no longer on speaking terms with the AAA after their five-year battle over speeding tickets. They do not care that since July 1, the national motor club has taken the rare step of rerouting members around both Lawtey and its neighbor to the south, Waldo.
In fact, the two towns are the only ones in the United States that AAA, which has 42 million members, has designated as speed traps, based largely on complaints from motorists unhappy with tickets they received. But officials of both towns say they do not really mind; if speeders want to go elsewhere to break the law, that suits them fine.
" 'Speed trap' is insulting; it sounds as if you're trying to entrap somebody who is doing nothing wrong," said Waldo Police Chief A.W. Smith, who, like Jordan, has noticed no reduction in the volume of traffic through his town since the rerouting began. "We don't issue tickets unless someone is flagrantly speeding, at least 10 miles over the limit."
AAA officials contend that Lawtey, in particular, issues speeding tickets for profit, not safety. Last year, according to Kevin Bakewell of the AAA, Lawtey police wrote 5,215 traffic tickets, generating nearly $400,000, once portions of the revenue were allotted to state and other local agencies. That accounted for about 68 percent of the town's entire budget. Waldo officers wrote enough tickets to account for 43 percent of Waldo's budget. Reasonable ticket revenue, according to the AAA, does not exceed 25 percent of a city's budget, and many Florida cities come in at about 1 percent.
"They've gotten into a situation where they have to continue writing tickets at that level," said Bakewell, spokesman of the Tampa-based AAA Auto Club South, which serves Florida, Georgia and much of Tennessee. "Traffic law enforcement is not supposed to be a town's largest profit center."
A study of 20 other Florida towns of comparable size and location (near major roads) showed that they averaged about 500 traffic tickets a year at a time when Lawtey was writing nearly 500 a month, he said.
As Americans hit the road for their summer vacations (27.5 million did so on Memorial Day weekend alone) the issue is a touchy one. Undeniably, speeding is deadly. The National Safety Council says that speed causes nearly 20 percent of traffic deaths in the United States.
But the image of the small-town speed trap--with a police officer lurking gleefully in wait for an unsuspecting motorist--has become so enduring and cartoonish that it can seem more offensive to some than the image of a speeder catapulting through a 35-mph zone. Both Chief Jordan and Chief Smith say that their officers do not try to hide or trick anyone and are not attempting to punish people; they simply want the heavy-footed driver to slow down, be aware of his or her surroundings and not hurt themselves or anyone else.
"They say we're another Mayberry with Andy and Barney, and that's not true," said David Butler, an eight-year veteran of the Lawtey force who resents the derision. "Everyone's treated the same, no matter whether they're local or out of state."
Lawtey, located about 25 miles southwest of Jacksonville in Florida's strawberry region, has had a speed-trap reputation since the 1960s. Until the great interstate building push of the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. 301 was an important north-south artery through Florida. Today, it remains a busy route, with 28,000 cars a day passing through Lawtey and Waldo, but it functions as more of a shortcut for motorists traveling from the Tampa area and other points west and southwest to hook up with I-95 on the East Coast. With its small towns, stoplights and reduced-speed zones, it also maintains vestiges of what many think of as old-time Florida: lots of produce stands and small, quirky motels.
So-called speed traps have long been a concern of the AAA and some lawmakers, who are mindful of Florida's dependence on happy tourists. In 1963, the state legislature took the extreme step of abolishing a small town--Boulougne--on U.S. 301 just south of the Georgia line, taking away its charter after investigations found that officials were using ticket revenue to run the town.
There is, however, no Florida law that sets a limit on speeding tickets, not that AAA has not tried. During this year's legislative session, a bill failed that would have forbidden a city from deriving more than 25 percent of its total income from traffic fines, laws already enacted in Georgia and Missouri. Last year, a Florida law did pass that gives motorists a buffer zone of five miles over the speed limit before they become eligible for a ticket.
AAA also has pushed for state investigations of ticket-writing tactics used in Lawtey and Waldo, but the most recent one, by the state highway patrol in 1996 at the behest of the state attorney general's office, cleared both towns. It even suggested that the towns' outstanding safety records were due, in part, to the officers' vigilance, findings that made officials there even more determined to continue their practices. "Lawtey kind of gloats about the fact that they are traffic traps," Bakewell said. "They're arrogant about it."
He does not know how many motorists might be avoiding the towns altogether. AAA's suggested alternate route from the west, taking I-75 to I-10, then I-95, adds about 48 miles to a trip, but because of the streamlined nature of interstate travel, is only about five minutes longer, Bakewell said.
In Lawtey, Chief Jordan and his nine officers remain unperturbed.
"They think they're going to tell us what to do," he said. "I'll tell you one thing, Lawtey will be here long after the AAA is gone."
Beyond the town's ticket-dispensing fame, Jordan also holds another distinction. He is the longest-serving police chief in the United States, he said, with 38 years on the job and no intention of retiring. He got his nickname, "the Silver Bullet," which is embroidered on a patch on his uniform shirt-sleeve, long ago from speeding truckers who were unable to elude him.
Officer Butler likens the chief to "an old-fashioned constable. If you live here and you can't pay your water bill that month, you can come to him and say, 'Chief, I'm down on my luck. Will you help me?' And he will."
A noted night owl, Jordan begins patrol at 2 a.m. "I like to see what's going on," he said. As each business opens, he drops by to check on the owners and clerks. He will find no critics there.
"That AAA, they've been after Waldo and Lawtey for years," said Carl Torode, who owns the Shell station on U.S. 301, where the speed limit is 45 mph. "It is ridiculous. We don't want people driving 60 mph through our little ol' community. Who would?"
CAPTION: "We're just doing our job," complains Police Chief M.M. Jordan. "If they can't slow down to 45 miles an hour . . . then they need a ticket."
CAPTION: Drivers beware: The Florida town of Lawtey is called nation's top speed trap by the American Automobile Association.