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Traffic woes land senior in jail

by David Cole
| November 30, 2010 8:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - A 65-year-old woman on Monday was sentenced to two days in jail after she was convicted of reckless driving during a recent trial.

Mary Ellen Tappen, of Dalton Gardens, was ordered to serve her two days in late January by Magistrate Judge Barry E. Watson. She also was ordered to pay a $250 fine. Reckless driving is a misdemeanor.

The judge said, "To be honest, Mrs. Tappen, I would not feel safe driving with you. I don't feel safe being on the same roads you're on."

Outside the courtroom after the sentence was handed down, Tappen dabbed some tears and said the jail sentence "stinks."

Watson said he would have suspended her driver's license, too, but that's not within his jurisdiction. That will be up to the state.

The reckless driving incident occurred in March of this year. She was seen weaving in and out of her lane in her 1996 Chevy S10 pickup truck and nearly hit a group of four bicyclists, said Jim Reierson, Kootenai County deputy prosecutor.

A couple in another vehicle spotted her erratic driving, called 911 and followed her on Hayden Avenue, Highway 41 and Mullan Avenue as she made her way to Walmart in Post Falls for an oil change.

A left-hand turn from Hayden to the highway was a particularly reckless maneuver, when she drove into the oncoming lane of traffic, the witnesses said.

The couple testified during the bench trial last month.

This wasn't the first problems Tappen has had with her driving. About three years ago, she pleaded guilty to two inattentive driving incidents.

In the first of those incidents, in December 2007, Tappen was weaving in and out of her southbound lane on U.S. 95 and sideswiped a truck heading in the opposite direction.

An Idaho State Police trooper caught that incident, at Garwood Road, on video from his patrol car.

The two trucks lost side mirrors and the driver of the other vehicle had to swerve off the highway to avoid a head-on collision in his lane, Reierson told the court.

The trooper, Cpl. Charles Greear, played the video for Watson on Monday.

The driver of the other vehicle had several other passengers, including kids.

After Greear pulled Tappen over, he discovered she had multiple small dogs running about inside the cab of the truck.

"She blamed the other driver for the incident," Greear said during the hearing. "She didn't know she had been weaving."

Two days after that incident, she was again involved in an accident and charged with inattentive driving.

This time she was on Interstate 90 and rear-ended a truck and trailer. At least one person was injured in that accident.

After the inattentive driving incidents, Tappen had been ordered to be tested annually to determine whether she is physically and mentally able to drive. She has been able to pass the tests and continue driving.

Watson said he doesn't believe Tappen is always aware of her surroundings while driving, behavior which has lead to the crimes.

Watson flipped through four pages of prior traffic and vehicle equipment infractions Tappen has had, dating back 20 years.

"You've got a lot of tickets," Watson said.

Reierson argued that the inattentive driving charges, previous tickets and the earlier penalties failed to get Tappen's attention. That's why he recommended jail time for the reckless driving, believing it would send a message to her and others.

Her private attorney, Brian Long, played on the court's sympathies to older drivers facing the loss of freedom.

"It's something most all of us will someday face, when driving isn't as easy as it used to be," Long said.

He said Tappen is a good person, selling Christmas trees to supplement her income this year and has been sleeping in a storage garage near her trees. She has no heat in the garage and stays warm by cuddling her dogs.

He said she loves animals and children and recommended she receive community service instead of jail.

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