By Corey Friedman
[Note: This post was originally written as an editorial for The Wilson Times following the storm that blanketed eastern North Carolina with snow and ice the last week of January.]
As a Deep South snowstorm blasted eastern North Carolina, Onslow County ordered people indoors and told them to stay off the roads after dark on Tuesday and Wednesday. The county commissioners’ chairman set a nighttime curfew for residents of Onslow’s unincorporated areas in a Tuesday proclamation.
Residents were confined to private property from 7 p.m. Tuesday to 7 a.m. Wednesday and from 6 p.m. Wednesday to 7 a.m. Thursday. Board of Commissioners Chairman Paul Buchanan called the curfew “a matter of public safety.”
“It is essential for the citizens to be off the roads in order for the sheriff and deputies to be able to respond to calls for assistance and for overall safety,” Buchanan said in a statement. “The curfew will also prevent crimes of opportunity while our citizens are safe in their homes. Our emergency responders will be able to react and respond safely to minimize loss and maintain security and safety measures.”
Under state law, curfew violators are guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor. Penalties can range from a few days of community punishment to 60 days in jail depending on a convict’s past criminal record.
Concern for residents’ safety is understandable in a coastal North Carolina county more accustomed to tropical storms than snowstorms. But officials could have relied on education rather than intimidation.
State troopers, police and transportation engineers in Wilson County warned residents about the dangers of black ice and slush-caked roads, encouraging folks to avoid driving during and immediately following the storm. Motorists got the message.
Wilson saw only a handful of wrecks Tuesday and Wednesday, and most of those happened on Interstate 95, the primary north-south thoroughfare for the entire East Coast. On county and city roads, authorities responded to a couple minor crashes and tow trucks dislodged a few snowbound cars.
“We had some cars that we responded to in the ditch, and that’s time-consuming, but that’s been the extent of it,” said 1st Sgt. Tony Cameron of the N.C. Highway Patrol’s Wilson office. “We’ve been really lucky.”
Wilson County saw about a half-foot of snow, with measurements ranging from 5-8 inches. That’s roughly double the amount that fell in Onslow County.
Icy roads can be tricky to downright treacherous, but no one was killed or seriously hurt on the highways here. And Wilson County didn’t resort to orders and threats to keep motorists off the roads. Officials trusted residents to use their common sense.
Emergency curfews strike us as heavy-handed, unnecessary and altogether unacceptable in a free society. Government shouldn’t treat adult American citizens like children by taking away their personal choices and arbitrarily restricting their freedom of movement.
Individuals have a personal responsibility to keep themselves and their families safe. Add the natural incentive of self-preservation, and we believe that’s a responsibility most North Carolinians can handle on their own. It’s the height of arrogance for government to presume it has to keep us safe with paternalistic proclamations.
State lawmakers voted to let cities and counties set curfews when they passed the North Carolina Emergency Management Act of 1977, and unless that law is changed in the General Assembly or struck down by the courts, the option of shutting us away in our homes when disaster strikes will remain on the table.
We hope local leaders think twice before taking this untenable step. It belies a lack of confidence in — and a lack of respect for — the people who elected them to govern.
Wilson County handled this week’s snowstorm the right way, by making folks aware of the dangers and steering clear of personal travel decisions.
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