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Speed Trap Ahead
Two years ago, Erich Campbell, a college student in Florida, got a ticket for flashing his headlights to warn other drivers of a police speed trap. His lawyer took it to court and, as he had done in other cases, argued that Campbell’s right to free speech had been violated. His fine was dismissed. Campbell’s lawyer, however, went on to file a class action suit against Florida on behalf of 2,400 drivers since 2005 who had been similarly cited under Florida’s statute. As a case citing the First Amendment, this class action suit has gained national attention.
Drivers who signal speed traps appear to be warning other drivers as a favor. Jack Marshall, an ethicist and a lawyer who writes about current debates in order to consider matters of conscience and standards of conduct, calls this a misapplication of the golden rule (Look Out!). Imagine telling a new driver to warn speeders of law enforcement ahead—this is not standard driving instruction. New drivers are told to be aware of the posted speed at all times. Drivers are cautioned to tune out all distractions, such as talking on cell phones and texting. Flashing headlights to warn of speed traps has been defended as promoting slower speeds; it has also been described as aiding and abetting lawbreakers. In the end, it is no favor to warn of a speed trap.
Speed traps are intended to catch speeding drivers unawares. The element of surprise is necessary in order for police to do their job and to be able to catch and ticket drivers exceeding the speed limit. Yet, Americans seem to loathe speed traps, and a lot of energy is expended to sabotage police efforts.
So, why do police use speed traps? Speed enforcement zones are necessary because speed kills. According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), of those who died in car crashes in 2009, approximately 30 percent were caused by high speeds. That means 10, 591 human beings lost their lives in car crashes in 2009 as a result of speed (Insurance Institute).
Americans tend to view speeding as just a matter of convenience and get angry with police officers who are trying to do their job and reduce fatalities (McCormick).
Speed enforcement is not primarily about cities seeking revenue; it’s about safety. High speed driving affords less time for a driver to react safely to unpredictable events or changing road conditions. Higher speeds also increase stopping distance taking into account the time from recognizing a problem to reacting by breaking as well as the increased distance travelled by a faster moving vehicle (Insurance Institute). According to Joel Bolton, a police Lieutenant in Louisiana, “Research has found that many drivers do not understand the relationship between higher speeds and longer stopping distances. And police can help the public understand that speed enforcement is about safety, not revenue collection, as some believe (“Highway”). Those who warn other motorists of speed traps by flashing their headlights are not thinking about safety.
People assume airbags and other safety features of the new cars are guaranteed to work in any situation and at any speed. Improvements in road conditions and new safety features in vehicles lead to a false sense of security. While they do make driving safer, they have limitations, especially at high speeds. Bolton observes that people “may believe that their experience behind the wheel, combined with safer vehicles and more forgiving roadways, will protect them. But police can raise awareness of the involvement of speed in crashes and the effects of additional energy from higher speed impacts on injury” (Highway). Add to that the increased likelihood of fatality in high speed crashes; drivers should be assisting not hindering speed traps.
All laws should be obeyed. A person cannot pick and choose which laws to follow. Aiding and abetting lawbreakers, as flashing headlights to warn of speed traps has been described, is interfering with police action. The philosopher Immanuel Kant knew that people might get away with something but still feel guilt. This is because every person has a conscience, guiding them according to an innate moral law. It’s a matter of integrity to follow your own conscience rather than to follow the crowd. From the popular mood in America, at the moment, speeding is an accepted behavior, considered a privilege almost, certainly a convenience. In a 1998 study repeated in 2002 with much the same results, one American driver out of three was likely to agree with this claim: "I try to get where I am going as fast as I can" (Schulman). Law abiding citizens drive the speed limit and do not warn others of speed traps.
Of course, some laws are morally wrong. For instance, Thoreau went to jail because he opposed slavery and wanted to demonstrate his opposition by not participating in an economy that depended on slavery. As an act of civil disobedience, he went to jail. Today, many oppose war and have gone to jail as a form of peaceful protest. However, no one is willing to serve jail time to protect speeding because speeding is merely a convenience—it is done so you can get some place faster.
Interestingly enough, as much as Americans dislike speed zones, and dispute the need to control speed on highways, they do view speed cameras in a fairly favorable light. Studies show Americans view speed cameras somewhat positively and also these same studies show reduced numbers of crashes as well as fatalities where speed cameras are in use (Insurance; National). Speed cameras protect drivers.
It will be interesting to see what happens in Florida. Out West, in Texas, the use of headlights to warn against speed traps is specifically mentioned in state law as not illegal (Marshall). If you drive out of Indiana and East into Ohio headlight flashing to warn of speed traps is ticketed. Here in Indiana, however, any problematic use of headlights appears to be dealt with at the discretion of the police on a case-by-case basis. We are one of only 14 states that have an aggressive driving law, and interestingly, headlight flashing is named as one of several actions that may earn a driver a citation. So, here in Indiana, headlight flashing has been at least in some instances identified as conduct rather than free speech.
Bolton, Joel. “Highway Safety Initiatives: Speed Management and the Three Es,” The Police Chief Sept 2011. Web. 4 Oct. 2011 http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=627&issue_id=62005
Marshall, Jack. “Look Out! There’s a Speed Trap Ahead!” Ethics Alarms 27 Aug. 2011. Web. 4 Oct. 2011. http://ethicsalarms.com/2011/08/27/look-out-theres-a-speed-trap-ahead/
McCormick, John. “Speed traps are latest black eye for Michigan.” The Detroit News 15 Sept. 2011 Web. 4 Oct. 2011. http://detnews.com/article/20110915/OPINION03/109150340/Speed-traps-are-latest-black-eye-for-Michigan
“National Survey of Speeding and Unsafe Driving: Attitudes and Behaviors: 2002” v. 2 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration November 2003 Web 5 Oct. 2011. http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/drowsy_driving1/speed_volII_finding/SpeedVolumeIIFindingsFinal.pdf
Schulman, Ronca. Driver Attitudes and Behavior. National Survey of Speeding and Other Unsafe Driving Actions. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration V. 2 U.S. Department of Transportation 15 Sept. 1998. Web. 5 Oct. 2011. http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/aggressive/unsafe/counter/cov-toc1.html
“Speed and Speed Limits.” Q & A. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: Highway Loss Data Institute May 2011. Web. 5 Oct. 2011. http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/speed_limits.html
Synthesis of Safety Research Related to Speed and Speed Management Publication Number: FHWA-RD-98-154 Federal Highway Administration US Department of Transportation. July 1998 http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/research/safety/98154/speed.cfm#speedincidence