Speeding complaints are rising. How are Fort Walton Beach police addressing the issue?

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — The city's police department has seen an uptick in speeding complaints throughout the city, with some drivers going up to 25 mph over the speed limit in residential neighborhoods. 

Fort Walton Beach Police Chief Robert Bage said his department regularly receives complaints from residents concerned about drivers going too fast, and almost every year the number tends to increase after school starts in August. 

“Traffic enforcement is a big issue that’s always brought forth to us by the community,” Bage said. “Every year, generally after the start of school, we start getting a few more speeding complaints that come in.” 

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Bage said the problems are everywhere, from residential areas and state roads to spots near school zones. Residents surrounding Kenwood Elementary School have expressed many concerns about speeding, and other problem areas officers have noted are Memorial Parkway, Wright Parkway, Holmes Boulevard and Jet Drive. 

“I think is has to do with the changing traffic patterns and the school zones,” Bage said. “People might be more aware when they’re out in the morning. They’re waiting at bus stops so they might pay more attention to what’s going on.” 

Fort Walton Beach Police Officer Nathan Chapin checks the speed of vehicles traveling on Jet Drive on Thursday.

The department is reclassifying a position for a traffic officer to help educate the public and focus on enforcing traffic laws, but enforcement has traditionally been a shared responsibility by several positions. 

Officers in the recently formed Community Oriented Policing Services unit have been learning more about residents' concerns while performing their daily duties, and in the meantime have taken up traffic as one of their primary directives.

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“Speeding will not go away. It is something that is just there. It’s human nature,” said Sgt. Charles Pettis, who oversees the COPS unit. “Our job is to keep it curtailed and keep it at safe levels. As the city has grown over the years, there’s much more of an area and many, many more cars on the road for us to try to keep curtailed.” 

Officer Nathan Chapin was tasked with tracking the issue near Kenwood Elementary School earlier this year.

The department conducted multiple traffic studies in the area using devices such as a traffic trailer and laser gun to collect information about what time of day most people were speeding, which direction they were heading and how fast they were going. 

Fort Walton Beach Police Officer Nathan Chapin starts up a laser speed detector before checking the speed of vehicles traveling on Jet Drive on Thursday.

“It gives us a good judge of when the problem is, how bad the problem is and what our options are from there,” Chapin said. “It gives you all the science to back up everyone on the street saying there’s a constant issue.” 

Officers can use laser guns to pinpoint a specific vehicle from a stationary position up to 1,000 feet away. The gun uses an infrared laser light to analyze the speed of the vehicle, which is then relayed to officers instantaneously. 

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Chapin also created fliers with information on fines for traveling over the speed limit and the distance required to stop at certain speeds. He distributed them in February and said there has since been a noticeable decrease in problems in the area. 

“Something that I’m a proponent for is if I don’t have to stop you because you’re not speeding that’s preferable,” Chapin said. “I’m not here to go out and pull people over and write a bunch of tickets. I’m here to educate people, get them to slow down and save lives.”

The department is now planning to take similar action in other areas such as Jet Drive Northwest, where they have received many complaints. Chapin said drivers regularly go well over the 25 mph speed limit, with some traveling as fast as 50 mph. 

A handout from the Fort Walton Beach Police Department for speeding motorists shows vehicle stopping distances at various speeds. On the flip side are the typical fines levied on speeders.

“We get plenty of complaints, and just standing out here for 20 minutes you can see cars flying by all of the time,” Chapin said. “It’s an issue and we’re here to address it. Whether it’s through education, or if people aren’t responsive to that, trying to tackle it a different way.”

Many times officers will see drivers leaving from Holmes Boulevard, which is a 30 mph area, to Jet Drive and not slowing down. 

“People nine times out of 10 are on autopilot,” he said. “They just kind of go with the flow. The clearer the road is, the less traffic there is, the faster they want to go.” 

Going anywhere from 15 to 19 mph over the speed limit can cost drivers $253, and going those same speeds in a school zone could result in a fine of $403. Officers issued 426 speeding tickets in 2020 and have already issued 325 this year. 

Not only is speeding costly, but Bage said it increases the risk of being in a crash. A safe stopping distance for drivers traveling 30 mph is 75 feet. That distance increases to 118 feet when traveling at 40 mph. 

Fort Walton Beach Police Officer Nathan Chapin checks the speed of a vehicle on Jet Drive on Thursday.

“The faster you go, the greater distance it’s going to cause you to stop and the less reaction time you’re going to have if something does happen,” Bage said. “A lot of times speed will increase the severity of traffic crashes, and if the roads are wet or there’s limited sight, speeding just aggravates the situation.”

Pettis said officers plan to set up in areas where they have received lots of complaints at random times throughout the day. Once the traffic study on Jet Drive is complete, Pettis said officers will have a better idea of when the most problems occur. 

“There’s a lot of different areas in the city that we’re going to tackle. That’s why we have multiple COPS officers like myself,” Chapin said. “That way we can tackle all of these different issues. Hopefully we can educate people to the point where they’re paying attention and we don’t have to pull them over.”