Mitch Kaplan was on his way to ski Killington one Friday night a few winters ago when he saw the dreaded blue lights in his rearview mirror. Driving his mother's red Honda Civic, Kaplan, who lives in Fair Lawn, N.J., was traveling east on US Route 4 near Rutland, Vt., and was nearing a place where he knew a police cruiser was often stationed. But he took a chance and passed the car ahead of him, briefly traveling about 20 miles per hour over the posted limit, he says.
"I had already slowed back down," Kaplan remembers, "but somewhere in there he got me."
Kaplan doesn't remember how much he paid for the ticket, but says, "It was a chunk of change." Although he says he has never been a true lead-foot, he now carefully monitors his speedometer while driving Vermont roads, lest he have to make another involuntary contribution to the state's public safety fund.
As Kaplan learned, if your travels take you through Vermont, it pays to heed the speed limit. Or else pay the price, not just in fines but in points, too. (Going more than 10 miles per hour over the posted speed limit nets you three points on your Vermont license; get 10 points, and your license is suspended
In reality, roads such as Route 4 are not highways, but two-lane rural roads with posted speed limits of 50 miles per hour at most. As these roads pass through small towns, they become village streets. And officials are determined to keep their residents safe from people who speed through towns as though they are being chased.
"Would you want someone going 60 by your house?" asks Deputy Sheriff Tom Battista, who frequently patrols Route 4 in Bridgewater, a village about halfway between Woodstock and Killington.
As Route 4 comes into Bridgewater, the speed limit drops from 50 to 40, then 35, and finally to 25 through the heart of the village. Speed limits are set by the state, depending on road width, terrain, and proximity to towns. In Bridgewater, the houses and town buildings, including the school, are close to the road. In fact, the Route 4 corridor is so narrow through the village that there isn't room for a sidewalk.
Many of the houses were built when Route 4 was a country road, Battista says. Now it's one of the main arteries between New York state and New Hampshire, and drivers tend to treat it as such. In 2007, Battista and other members of the Windsor County Sheriff's Department wrote 2,452 speeding tickets, "a pretty good number," says Sheriff Michael Chamberlain.
Some of the excuses these officers have heard when they pull people over? "I'm lost," Battista says, chuckling, as if speeding will help them find their way.
Another one: "I'm on the phone."
Although nothing spoils a vacation or ski weekend quite like a speeding ticket, Battista and Chamberlain emphasize that they're not there to trap out-of-staters or to pad the village coffers.
"People are traveling along at 50 miles per hour, sometimes not paying attention, and suddenly they're in a village," says Chamberlain. "They fly right through there. But children and families walk along that highway."
"We want people to travel Route 4," Chamberlain adds. "But we're there for the safety of the community. . . . Over the years, we've had a lot of fatalities [through Bridgewater]. That's what we're trying to prevent."
Route 4 isn't the only main two-lane highway in Vermont. Other major two-lane arteries include Route 2 running from Burlington across northern Vermont into New Hampshire, Route 7 traveling north-south in western Vermont, State Route 9 traversing southern Vermont from Bennington to Brattleboro, and State Route 30, a popular road for tourists from Brattleboro to Manchester and north to Middlebury.
Like Bridgewater, Danville in northern Vermont sits astride Route 2. On either side of the village, the once winding, narrow highway has been straightened and widened, with several passing lanes and a good shoulder added. The improvements may encourage people to drive well over the 50 mile-per-hour limit. But the posted speed limit, like in Bridgewater, is 25.
"Lots of cars go whizzing through," says Ginny Morse, the Danville town clerk. "They complain when they get stopped, and they very rarely will listen to reason. They resent having to slow down. Where they're from, they're used to interstates. They just don't realize they're driving through a small town. It's a different pace."
"If you slow down, you're apt to see some really neat things," she adds.
In Dorset, along State Route 30 in southwestern Vermont, even the locals complain about the posted speed limit. For about 5 miles, as Route 30 travels from South Dorset to the north end of the village proper, the posted speed is 30. Over this distance, it's easy to let your foot grow heavy on the pedal.
Malcolm Cooper, who was raised in Dorset and now runs a woodworking company in town, admits to pushing the limit in his youth and earning more than his share of speeding tickets. One summer decades ago, he even lost his license after accruing too many points and had to drive his John Deere tractor to work for five days.
"They broke my will to drive fast," he says. "Now I am a plodding old fart mogging through Dorset at 30 miles per hour on cruise control."
Another legendary spot is Mendon, where Route 4 comes down the mountain west from Killington. The road remains wide with a good shoulder through town, so the posted limit drops just slightly, from 50 to 45. Still, it's easy to forget . . .
Scott Bradley, the Mendon constable, says if people hung up their cellphones and paid attention, they would avert a lot of problems.
"Everything is clearly posted," Bradley says. "It's not a speed trap. It's posted [45 miles per hour] for a reason. There's a lot going on in that area. We're trying not to have traffic accidents, and we want to keep people safe."
Chamberlain and his deputies wouldn't mind writing fewer tickets. But as long as people speed through Windsor County's villages, they will remain vigilant.
Which is why Mitch Kaplan won't drive more than 9 miles per hour over the posted speed limit in Vermont. "I figure there's always someone going faster," he says.
Peggy Shinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.