Local News

Stay-at-home rules mean traffic stops in NC hit lowest mark in years

Posted May 4, 2020 3:06 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2020 6:51 p.m. EDT

— Law enforcement officers around the state routinely pull over more than 100,000 drivers each month. In March, that number dropped to 71,000, the lowest monthly total WRAL Data Trackers found in the last five years.

While some businesses, such as bars and restaurants, had to scale back operations in March, most local stay-at-home orders, as well as the statewide order, didn’t take effect until the waning days of the month.

"The vehicles are just not on the roadways that were on the roadway prior to the COVID-19 outbreak," said Sgt. Michael Baker, a spokesman for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.

Data obtained by WRAL News shows traffic stops dropped nearly 30 percent statewide in March compared to February. A closer look reveals Raleigh stops fell 27 percent, and stops in Durham by a whopping 78 percent. Traffic stops in Charlotte were off by 30 percent, they dropped only 10 percent in Fayetteville.

Baker said the drop isn’t due to coronavirus-related policy changes, at least in the Highway Patrol.

"Our priorities have not changed," he said, adding that troopers are taking extra precautions before they interact with drivers. "[They're wearing] the N95 masks, the face shields. We’ve provided them with gloves [and] hand sanitizer."

Baker said there are negatives to more open roads: "In certain areas of the state, we have found some motorists are traveling in excess of 100 mph due to the roadways being less congested."

Troopers will give chase in those cases, but for most other drivers, there’s just a lot of smooth sailing.

"The less congestion, the less traffic fatalities, the less collisions. That is good news," he said.

One unforeseen impact could be the loss of traffic- and road-related fines and fees. A large portion of that money is transferred to the State Treasurer’s Office and eventually sent to local school districts to pay for technology upgrades.

DOT cash crunch means no new highway projects

Less driving also has left the state Department of Transportation short of cash.

The DOT said Monday that it now has less than $293 million of cash in its reserves, falling below a minimum set in state law. The agency is funded by gas tax revenue, taxes on vehicle sales and fees from Division of Motor Vehicles services, and all three money streams have dried up under stay-at-home orders.

"Never in the history of NCDOT has there been such an immediate and sustained decline in revenues," Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette said in a statement. "We need revenue to begin putting people back to work across North Carolina."

The agency expects revenue for the fiscal year that ends in June to come up $300 million short, and projections call for a $370 million shortfall in fiscal 2020-21.

Falling below the required minimum means the DOT cannot award new construction, engineering or repair contracts or negotiate right-of-way purchases for future highway projects. Projects already underway can continue.

The DOT already has laid off about half of its temporary workers and consultants to cut costs and has implemented a hiring freeze. It also canceled a contract to buy a ferry to shuttle people on the Outer Banks and is working up other cost-cutting measures, including a plan to furlough workers.

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