Caught in a Speed Trap: Traps for the Wary

At one time in history, speed traps were a serious revenue enhancer for local governments and a moneymaker for unscrupulous law enforcement officials and highway patrolmen. These ‘police officers’ often relied on catching motorists that were willing to offer a bribe in exchange for a slap on the wrist and passage. Today, the clearly defined speed trap is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Defined under California law as "an artificially low speed limit combined with excessively high enforcement,” speed traps exist in an estimated 55,000 areas across 4 million miles of roads and streets throughout the U.S. Economics, professionalism, and an increase in the accessibility of lawyers have contributed to the demise of the speed trap of yesterday. However, law enforcement officials have found alternatives to setting up speed traps, which are technically considered illegal in most states.

For example, police obviously have specific spots they feel are ripe for catching speeders. They set up shop in these spots, daily, in order to catch speeders, whether it is for the speeders own good or to meet the officers daily quota. These ambiguous speed traps are not meant to catch serial, 90-100+ MPH speeders, that only represent the top 10-15 percent of all speeders. A speed trap is meant to create a Catch-22 for the other 85-90 percent that do actually slow down to obey the speed limit. Unfortunately, slowing down is not enough, so it is perfectly legal to issue a speeding ticket to these individuals.

Although outdated, various versions of “speed traps” still exist today and they carry just as many consequences and flaws as yesterdays. The following are just a few copycats and the consequences that must be endured by both drivers and the law enforcement officials:

1. Scientifically speaking, every state has adopted a standard engineering test to help determine the appropriate speed for a designated road. Courts expect law enforcement agencies to provide a reliable scientific basis for speed limits, and often harangue police departments, and their officials, for not following good science. Consider People v. Flaxman , 74 Cal.App.3d Supp. 16 (1977).

“Flaxman (appellant) was convicted of violating Vehicle Code section 22348, subdivision (a), driving a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than 55 miles-per-hour in an area posted for 40 miles-per-hour. The People's evidence consisted of the testimony of a single police officer who relied totally on a reading from a radar device.

Appellant's grounds for appeal were: (a) that any evidence as to a radar reading was inadmissible as incompetent because there was no justification of the posted speed limit by means of an engineering and traffic survey as required by Vehicle Code section 40802, subdivision (b); (b) there was no showing as to the radar machine's accuracy. The Legislature determined that evidence as to speed of a vehicle is incompetent if obtained from the use of a speed trap.”

2. When a vehicle pulls even with a speed limit sign, a driver can lift his foot from the gas pedal, and should reach the legal limit by coasting to the new, or transitional, speed limit. This is called “the pedal test.” But even common sense may be trumped by bureaucracies. There is the notorious Route 58, which provokes complaints from drivers as "Virginia's worst speed trap." In these cases, only applying the brake will reduce speed sufficient enough for compliance. In Oregon, a speed sign stated the limit as 25 MPH, when in fact the speed limit was engineered to be 35 MPH. A judge declared the zone illegal in 2010, thirty years after its initial posting.

3. Some cities or towns also have what appear to be absurdly low speed limits, but instead of being a technical speed trap, there may be local road conditions that make the low speed enforceable such as hidden entrances, high pedestrian traffic, children crossing, or even a single disabled local resident.

4. There are other ways a speed trap may be created. One indication of a trap is the placement of a mechanical speed detector device within 100 yards of a speed reduction sign.

Conclusion: A Speed Trap By Any Other Name...

The bottom line is there is a fair amount of latitude in the enforcement of speed limits, often under vehicle codes regarding safe driving enforcement. More importantly, any speed limit may be linked to what the traffic will bear. A fairly typical state road standard, for example, is the establishment of a speed limit that is followed by an approximate 85th percentile of all traffic on that road. But as any police officer with a citation book in hand will be happy to tell you, "Road conditions and equipment can make all the difference. Have a safe day. Here's your summons."