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Editorial: Don't ditch driver education out of political spite

Goodhue County and Red Wing suspended their driver safety classes this month after a district court judge declared a similar program illegal in Wabasha County. We applaud Sheriff Scott McNurlin and Chief Roger Pohlman, who said they will wait for the Legislature to clarify the law although they don’t believe their programs are necessarily illegal.

The sheriff’s office and the police department have been giving anyone pulled over for speeding and other petty misdemeanor traffic violations an option: People can get a ticket, pay the fine and have the infraction go on their driving record or they can pay to receive education that makes them better drivers and keep the infraction off their record. Locally, part of the driving class fee went to the state, just as part of each ticket fine goes to the state.

When set up properly, everyone wins under the ticket diversion program. The state gets its revenue, local units of government get a little revenue, motorists become better drivers and, ideally, traffic safety improves across Minnesota. Even insurance companies benefit because, while they don’t get higher premiums coming from ticketed drivers, they should end up paying fewer claims for crashes.

One reason that Wabasha County’s program ran into trouble is that Sheriff Rod Bartch kept the entire class fee, putting the $400,000-plus cover since 2003 toward department expenses. Another reason is the ongoing feud between Wabasha County commissioners and certain staff.

To paraphrase Goodhue County Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel’s comment the day McNurlin announced the suspension of the program: It’s a shame politics got in the way of something that benefits county residents.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa appears to be upping the political ante by asking the Legislature to penalize any county or city that continues to offer a diversion program.

We urge legislators to clarify the law instead. We ask counties and cities then to follow the letter of the law. In this way a popular, successful and innovative program can continue.