DAMASCUS, Ark. — Damascus is a sleepy little town located on U.S. Highway 65 about 50 north of Little Rock.
It’s claim to fame — if you want to call it that — is that it was the site of what was the most highly-publicized disaster in the history of the Titan II missile program when its missile exploded within the launch duct on September 19, 1980, with such force that the blast blew the 740-ton launch duct closure door 200 feet into the air and some 600 feet northeast of the launch complex. One airman died as a result of the explosion.
Twenty-one people were injured by the explosion or during rescue efforts.
Today, Damascus is in the news again and depending on whether you’re a city official or a motorist caught off guard by the town’s 45 mph speed limit, the news could be good or bad.
Over the years, Damascus has become known to Arkansans who travel U.S. 65 to and from North Central Arkansas as a speed trap and an “oh, my goodness” venture to unsuspecting motorists who don’t slow down enough from the 60 mph rural speed limit and find themselves looking into the blue lights of the Damascus Police Department.
Among the latter are professional truck drivers because U.S. 65 is the primary trucking corridor between Little Rock and Springfield, Missouri.
Also among the latter are vacationers headed to Branson, Missouri, who are leaving dollars they hope to spend on entertainment in Damascus coffers.
The speed trap reputation finally reached the point that officials began to suspect that Damascus was in violation of Arkansas’ speed trap law.
This week, a prosecutor found that indeed, Damascus was in violation of that law and has ordered the city to cease patrol of all highways.
The Conway Log Cabin Democrat has reported that Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland found Damascus was in violation of the Arkansas speed trap statute because the city’s revenues from fines exceeded 30 percent of the city's expenditures for two years.
Thirty percent of revenues is one of the two ways a city can be deemed a speed trap, per the statute. A city can also be found at fault if more than 50 percent of its tickets are for violations of less than 10 mph over the speed limit. Damascus was not in violation of the 10-mph term.
City Attorney Beau Wilcox says Damascus plans to “vigorously contest” Hiland's ruling.
All traffic infractions will now be handled by the Faulkner County and Van Buren County sheriff's offices and Arkansas State Police, but because of limited resources within those agencies, there likely will not be the diligence paid to speeders for which the Damascus Police Department became famous.
The sanction does not bar Damascus police from responding to calls for services within the city. “I am not unmindful of the need for the City of Damascus to regulate traffic within its jurisdictional limits,” Hiland wrote. “The residents of the city should not be forced to endure a lack of public safety service as a result of the police department having improperly abused its police power.”
Faulkner County Chief Deputy Matt Rice said deputies have been advised of the Damascus’ sanction and will run radar and patrol city streets.
“We will try our best to be up there and be seen in the area,” he said. “We will handle all traffic violations in Damascus. State police have also been advised.”
In finding Damascus police were “abusing police power,” Hiland ruled that any officer found in violation of the sanction will be issued a Class A misdemeanor for each citation or summons issued, which could also constitute a misdemeanor arrest.
Wilcox said the city disagrees with Hiland’s ruling and plans to “vigorously contest” sanctions imposed against the city “due to the implications they would have on the safety of the community and motorists generally.”
Damascus has a unique setting in that it has a five-lane highway running north-south through it, a major artery used by 20,000 cars a day during peak travel periods, according to state figures.
The approximately 2.1-mile stretch through the town, marked 45 mph, is relatively straight, with no stop lights or speed control mechanisms, but has 11 intersecting streets as well as business driveways. The speed limit is 60 mph both north and south of Damascus.
Wilcox has argued in the past that with no traffic lights to regulate traffic, police force is “the only thing controlling traffic flow in Damascus.”
The order issued against Damascus states the sanction will remain in place “through the completion of the current prosecutor’s term of office.”
Associated Press sources contributed to this article.