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Published March 29, 2011, 02:43 PM

ND House: $250 Fine for Driving on Closed Road

A $250 fine for driving on a closed road may make some motorists think twice about going around an interstate highway gate during a blizzard, the North Dakota House decided Tuesday.

By: Associated Press,

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A $250 fine for driving on a closed road may make some motorists think twice about going around an interstate highway gate during a blizzard, the North Dakota House decided Tuesday.

Violators now pay a $20 fine. Legislation to increase the penalty, which has failed in several previous legislative sessions, has gotten new life this winter because of reports of dozens of incidents of motorists driving on Interstates 29 and 94 after authorities ordered the highways closed because of inclement weather.

"I kind of agree that $250 is a pretty stiff penalty, but I guess that's the idea, isn't it?" Rep. Phillip Mueller, D-Valley City, said during House debate Tuesday about the increase. "Don't do it. You won't have to be concerned about that penalty."

Representatives voted 60-34 to approve the higher fine. The legislation now returns to the Senate to see if senators will agree with House changes to the bill. If they do not, a conference committee of three House members and three senators will attempt to strike a compromise.

The legislation has included a number of provisions during its journey through the Legislature. When it won Senate approval, it said a motorist who was stranded on a closed road could be forced to pay the cost of his or her rescue. If the driver refused, his or her vehicle could be impounded until the bill was paid.

The House bill sets a $250 fine for any motorist who drives around a highway gate or other traffic marker that indicates a road has been closed for any reason, including poor weather or flooding. Other penalties have been removed.

"If the gate is closed, this is more of a deterrent for people who sit at the gates and say, 'You know, it's only 20 bucks. I'm going to take my chance,'" said Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Rep. Dwight Wrangham, R-Bismarck, said the $250 penalty was too high. In remarks on the House floor, Wrangham recalled getting a $20 ticket for driving around a road barrier to check on the extent of flooding on a road near his home.

"I think this goes a bit far ... Last spring, it cost me $20. I learned my lesson," Wrangham said as House members laughed.

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, said the legislation should include exceptions for drivers who have important reasons for driving on closed roads. Ruby and other lawmakers said they believed law enforcement officers would use discretion in those cases.

"There are times when people do need to go by," Skarphol said, mentioning the possibility that one of the huge electric power stations in western North Dakota might need service during a storm.

"If one of our power plants up here was going down, we need to think about the fact that sometimes, people do have legitimate reasons to go by," Skarphol said.

The bill is SB2157.

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