Petersburg police crack down on car key scofflaws

Posted: Tuesday, June 20, 2000

PETERSBURG (AP) -- Police have begun enforcing a city ordinance that could change a tradition for this Southeast island city: leaving car keys in the ignition.

The ordinance making it illegal to leave keys in the ignition of an unattended vehicle has been on the books for years, but rarely enforced. Many in the community of 3,500 say it's a quality of life issue to always know where the car keys are.

But Petersburg police this summer have issued 104 warnings for violations this summer and written 28 citations, carrying a $10 fine. Chief Dale Stone told the Petersburg Pilot that safety is main reason for enforcement.

''Oftentimes a vehicle theft involves a chemically impaired and-or a youthful driver and if they attempt to flee it can lead to a problem,'' Stone said. ''It's a formula for disaster, so consequently we're enforcing the code and we're issuing a lot of warnings to get people used to the idea.''

Last year, police investigated 25 vehicle thefts. Several cars were found wrecked. Stone said nearly all the thefts could have been avoided if keys had been removed.

''It only takes one incident that goes wrong for us to have a real tragedy,'' Stone said. ''In my career I've picked up more broken bodies -- especially youthful broken bodies -- and if I can avoid if, I'll do everything I can to do so.''

The enforcement is getting mixed reviews.

''I understand why they're doing it, but I feel frustrated because old habits are hard to break,'' said Desi Burrell, who was born and raised in Petersburg and has always left her keys in the car.

Morrie Mattson, a 27-year resident, said enforcement is a good idea.

''We should get used to it. I do it religiously down south, just like seat belts, and I don't do it here,'' Mattson said.

Valerie Ing-Miller said she always took her keys out when she moved to Petersburg. But as she became entrenched in the local culture, she said, the safety measure went by the wayside. She said she now leaves her keys behind to prevent a five- to 10- minutes search each morning.

Thirty-year resident Rick Williams said the code should not be enforced, at least in winter. Multiple drivers in his family use the car and leaving the key in the ignition prevents conflicts over keys.

''We never have to worry where they are because we know where they are all the time,'' Williams said.

City parking attendant Gary Foote, who is writing most tickets and warnings, is employed only through September but Chief Stone said enforcement will continue.

''I don't want people to get the impression that after a date it's OK to leave their keys behind,'' Stone said.

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