Speed trap

From Academic Kids

The term speed trap has several meanings, related to detection of speed limit violations.

  • It can refer to a place where a road-rule enforcement camera is posted.
  • California traffic law formally defines a certain kind of "speed trap" which is forbidden to be used by police officers as an evidence.
  • Still another meaning is a specific location in which police wait in concealment, hoping to catch unwary motorists speeding. For example, a police car might wait behind a bridge or overpass, out of sight of approaching motorists, then pull out once they pass. Often, this type of operation uses a radar gun to track cars' speeds.
  • Most commonly, it refers to strict enforcement speed limits using techniques or criteria which evidence suggests aren't purely motivated by road safety.

Disproportionately strict enforcement

Some cities or sections of road become known as speed traps when police have a reputation for writing an unusually high number of traffic tickets, usually for speeding. Sometimes, the posted speed limits are not easily seen; in other places, police have chosen to strictly enforce speed limits, and the limits might be set lower than warranted by road conditions or population. Speed traps often are found in small towns, often near major highways, in which travelers are unlikely to return to challenge a speeding ticket.

Some communities with reputations as speed traps have a disproportionately large number of their local workforce involved in law enforcement or judiciary occupations.

In some small towns and counties, traffic fines make up a large fraction of the income of the local government, which gives the police an incentive to write tickets.

Yet another tactic is for police to catch unwary motorists speeding by waiting behind bridges, overpasses, out of sight of approaching motorists, then pull out once they pass.


In the village of New Rome, Ohio, a speed trap that has received national media attention, a police force of 14 presided over a community of only 60 and collected around $400,000 in tickets annually. This comprised nearly all of the village's budget and nearly all went back into funding the police.

A force of less than a dozen full-time and reserve officers in Coburg, Oregon raised over $750,000 in traffic fines one year for a city of less than 1000 people and on a section of Interstate 5 outside of city limits. When the Oregon State Legislature passed a law closing a loophole the city had been exploiting, Coburg's police force spent the last six months before the law took effect writing an average of 22 tickets/day, resulting in bail amounts totalling more than $1 million.

Waldo, Florida and Lawtey, Florida are the only known towns (as of 2005) to be designated by AAA Auto Club as speed traps, with AAA going so far as to post billboards along US Hwy 301 warning drivers to watch their speed limits.

Limiting speed traps

In the state of Texas, the state legislature passed a law limiting the fraction of revenue that a local government could derive from traffic tickets. Oregon and other states have passed similar laws.

Another tactic used by some states to limit speed traps is to require that a substantial amount of all local traffic ticket revenue go directly into the state treasury, instead of having all revenue go to the issuing jurisdiction. Another is to reserve enforcement of traffic laws on numbered highways primarily to the purview of the state police or a similar entity.

"Speed trap" in California traffic law

Before the advent of radars, lasers and other hi-tech speed detectors, the speed of a vehicle was often determined with the help of aircraft observations by timing the moments when the vehicle passes two specific marks on a highway with known distance between them. This way was declared illegal, and for the purposes of the law the following definition was given in the California Vehicle Code:

A "speed trap" is ... A particular section of a highway measured as to distance and with boundaries marked, designated, or otherwise determined in order that the speed of a vehicle may be calculated by securing the time it takes the vehicle to travel the known distance.

The prohibition of this kind of "speed traps" followed after a series of successful defences that argued inadmissible error margin in human timing.

Subsequently, the second clause was added to the "speed trap" definition to cover inadmissible usage of "radar or other electronic devices". It considers multiple factors, such as the operation standards of devices, training of police officers, and whether the enforced speed limits were properly justified.

Since the introduction of this California law some people familiar with it only from hearsay came to an erroneous conclusion that it forbids the "cop in the bush"-type speed traps, which it does not.


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