“Look Out! There’s a Speed Trap Ahead!”

Who is your ally, the speeding motorist, or the traffic cop?

A lawsuit filed this week claims that 2,900 motorists were illegally ticketed in Florida between 2005 to 2010 for flashing their lights at oncoming, and speeding, cars to warn of speed traps ahead.  Apparently the police have been giving tickets to drivers sending a friendly “Cheese it! The cops!” message to scofflaws, in solidarity against the hated men and women in blue without benefit of an applicable statute.  The matter came to light when a college student on her way to school  spotted two  police officers on the side of the road and flashed her headlights to warn other drivers about the speed trap ahead. A police car pulled her over and the officer wrote her a ticket, saying she’d just broken the law by flashing her lights. She challenged the ticket and won, giving an enterprising lawyer an idea for class action lawsuit.

There is no Florida law that prohibits light-flashing, says Oviedo, Florida attorney J. Marcus Jones. He claims officers are simply misapplying a law that was designed to prohibit drivers from adding after-market emergency lights to their vehicles. He also claims that  officers writing those tickets are violating a driver’s constitutional right to free speech. If motorists want to flash their lights to warn about a speed trap ahead, they are free to do so, according to his suit.

Hmmmm.

Clearly, if there is no law against what the student and the other drivers did, it is wrong to give them a ticket. Police can’t make up laws on the spot. There is no question in my mind that flashing lights for this purpose should be illegal …but it isn’t, not in Florida, not anywhere I could find. In Texas, for example, warning a motorist of a speed trap is explicitly excluded from the list of prohibited actions constituting interference with police duties.

It is unethical, however. If I see a speeding motorist, I’m hoping he gets pulled over. It is a matter of public safety. Why does anyone consider it virtuous to take the side of a lawbreaker against law enforcement trying to maintain public order and safety?  This isn’t a legitimate application of the Golden Rule.

“Render warning unto others so they may break laws without penalty, as you would like to get away with breaking the same laws yourself.”  Uh, no.

I also don’t think flashing a warning to lawbreakers is free speech, though again, the statutes and ordinances I’ve seen disagree with me. Pure speech is exempted from laws prohibiting citizens from interfering with police enforcement, and the courts have interpreted such flashes as speech, not conduct. The law can draw the fine line between allowing the government to ban radar detectors as tools to abet speeding, and  pronouncing it legal, indeed a protected exercise of free speech, to warn dangerous speeders that justice is at hand, so they can slow down for a few hundred yards and commence speeding again once they are safely away from the police.

The class action in Florida wants a judge to issue an injunction banning all Florida police from writing light-flashing tickets, to reimburse drivers for the fines they’ve paid, to rule that officers are misapplying a law about add-on emergency lights. All quite right and just.

The problem is that this will create the impression that aiding and abetting speeders, who account for most of the vehicular deaths in America, is good and appropriate, even neighborly, conduct. It is, to the contrary, despicable, irresponsible, and unethical conduct that violates the duties of citizenship.

But it is legal, and likely to stay that way. This is one of the times that the law won’t and probably can’t step in to fix an ethical flaw in the culture. It is all up to us.

40 Comments

Filed under Citizenship, Law & Law Enforcement, U.S. Society

40 responses to ““Look Out! There’s a Speed Trap Ahead!”

  1. Elizabeth

    As a driver in and around Washington, DC, I see both speeders and the flashing light warnings. I admit that on certain highways I routinely drive 5-10 miles above the posted speed limit, my excuse being “just keeping up with the traffic.” But if I got a ticket for it, I would deserve it. As to warning other drivers, I do not do that, because most of the speeders around here are going around 75-80 (and higher) in areas with a 60-mile-per-hour limit, and I consider them not just scofflaws but assholes and real dangers to the safety of others on the road. They deserve to be ticketed, not warned by others to stop being assholes and reckless. When you’ve passed one accident scene on Route 395 with blood all over the road, you think twice about warning the creep that caused the destruction.

    • trueblue62

      It is ridiculous to say that people do not have a right to warn others there may be a “speed trap” or a “cop” ahead. Wake up people. The police should have no more ” advantage or rights” than any other citizen. They must obey the Constitution “first” all other laws or statutes stem from the constitution. We are all innocent until proven guilty.

  2. Jack,
    Without jumping too much into the fray, I would argue it IS something of a violation of free speech. Warning people about a speed trap IS unethical, but there is no law (nor should there be) against warning people against impending danger, legal or otherwise. I realize the slippery slope argument isn’t proof of anything, but if this were to become illegal, where would it end up?

    -Neil

    • I can see the argument. I’m pretty sure that calling up a crook and warning him about a police sting or raid wouldn’t get away with a Free Speech defense, though. I don’t see much distinction between that and the lights.

  3. Jeff

    I’m on the fence on whether or not flashing your lights should get you a ticket (flashing your light at an ONCOMING car can mean, “Hey, your lights aren’t on!”), but I sure don’t want the police giving people tickets for something that isn’t a law. Forget that.

  4. Chris

    I agree that warning a CRIMINAL that there are cops ahead may be unethical (assuming the law they have broken is an ethical one), but there is no guarantee here that it’s criminals who are being warned. The warning could just as easily be interpreted as an admonition not to break the law in the first place. It’s the same as a “shoplifters will be prosecuted” sign or “speed enforced by aircraft” sign (whatever that means), except that it’s more reliable and immediate. I’ll agree that helping someone not get caught who has ALREADY broken a law is unethical, but simply warning someone of the consequences of breaking the law seems more like a public service.

    You could argue that more criminals will be helped with light-flashing than will potential criminals, but I’m not sure that’s enough to call the behavior unequivocally unethical.

    • How do you know why a speeder is speeding? Given the deadliness of drunk drivers, I’d argue that the only
      ethical presumption is that the law is being broken, and in the interest of public safefy, assist in getting speeders off the road rather than interfere with it.

      And it is unethical to break even an unequivocally unethical law unless the lawbreaker accepts, and doesn’t evade, arrest and punishment.

      • Chris

        Whoah. So this is getting WAY off topic, but are you saying that in Nazi Germany, for example, a Jew would be ethically bound to obey all laws unless he then turned himself in for punishment? That can’t be what you’re saying…

        • Cheap and irrelevant example. I am talking about laws duly and lawfully passed in a democracy meeting constitutional standards. Objectively monstrous laws violating basic human rights and ethical principles compel disobedience. (Anti-illegal immigration laws do NOT qualify under this definition) Certainly you are not making a moral equivalency between an overly stringent speed limit and Nazi anti-Jewish laws? .

          Being member of a democratic society is consent to be governed by laws, duly passed after legislative debate and public comment. The minority cannot ethically refuse to obey every law it disagrees with on the theory that a law it does not like is “unjust.” Laws that persecute other law-abiding citizens, on the other hand, are by definition unjust.

          Clear?

          • Chris

            Certainly not equating Nazis and traffic cops. That’s why I said this was WAY off topic.

            And apologies for the cheap example – I realize I’m talking to someone who has decades of experience dealing with issues of ethics and law. And I’d imagine this is probably a first year law school topic. Apologies for that as well. I, however, have effectively zero experience with this stuff, so I went with the first example that came to mind. In fact, there are no doubt some Ethics 101 definitions that would be useful to me before engaging you on a topic like this. That said, I press on.

            Haven’t there been plenty of U.S. laws that were passed after the democratic processes you outline above which are now considered unethical? (I’m off the speed trap topic now, btw. ) Why is disobeying such a law necessarily unethical? Illegal, yes. I don’t think I should be free from legal liability by any means. But why should the government also get to be the final authority on what is ethical and what isn’t? Isn’t legal authority enough? Why must they have everything??

            • Because the Rule of Law doesn’t work if everyone is free to disobey any law he or she disagrees with. It fail’s Kant’s principle of Universality…if everybody did it all the time, civilization would fail. So we have an ethical obligation to respect the law as a duty of citizenship.Sure—we learn that some laws are wrong, and then change them,

              Let’s say you think abortion should be illegal, and that abortion is the killing of a fully human life. You can’t ethically treat an abortionist as if he were a mad dog child killer and shoot him, as if he were preparing to butcher an infant. a) It’s unfair to him—he was obeying the law; b) it’s the equivalent of vigilantism. Are there exceptions? Sure…there always are. But that’s the general rule.

              • tgt

                Your counter argument fails. If you don’t think abortion should be legal, the appropriate counter argument is that you don’t get one, not that you break completely independent laws.

                • Huh? If you think someone is committing murder, and many of those who oppose abortion believe that’s what it is, you have a moral obligation to do everything in your power to stop it. If your nation has legalized killing Jews, your suggested response is not to kill any yourself? Come on. I don’t believe that.

                  • tgt

                    That’s irrelevant. You set the stage with Chris that we must follow laws we don’t agree with, otherwise, bad things happen. The law that is disagreed with here is abortion, so if you were attempting to justify your position, you would have to show that failing to follow the abortion law would cause bad things to happen.

                    Instead, you had people fail to follow other laws (murder, vigilantism). Your example did not fit your argument.

                    • I don’t know why this is hard for you. The reason we obey laws is that they are society’s verdict in right and wrong behavior, and we are members of society…not “that bad things happen.” Defying a law doesn’t just mean disobeying a law, it means rejecting the standard, which in the case of abortion means rejecting society’s decision that human embryos have no inherent right to live,and can be killed at will, not by anyone, but my their mothers only. Rejecting that standard impels a different definition of the act of abortion, and a different duty by a responsible citizen. .

  5. Chris

    Makes sense. Thank you.

  6. Tim LeVier

    It is unethical, however. If I see a speeding motorist, I’m hoping he gets pulled over. It is a matter of public safety. Why does anyone consider it virtuous to take the side of a lawbreaker against law enforcement trying to maintain public order and safety? This isn’t a legitimate application of the Golden Rule.

    You assume that law enforcement is trying to maintain public order and safety. They aren’t. It’s a cash cow and they want to keep it going. If they had any interest in safety, they’d put speed cameras everywhere so that drivers were effectively discouraged from speeding. That’s not what they do. They build 7 lane roads, 3 in each direction with a median break down lane in the middle, out in the middle of nowhere with no traffic congestion and then they rate it 45 MPH. Then they play cat and mouse games to generate revenue and the sheriff puts in quotas for his deputies that they must meet each month.

    I think the drivers on the road don’t always flash their lights when they see cops. I think if it’s a neighborhood, or near a school, I’ve never seen light flashing. However, traps in places traffic would logically move faster than the posted speed limit, I see much more cars flashing their lights.

    So what about a cop sitting back from a 3 way stop trying to find cars on the main road that don’t come to a full stop at a stop sign? Effectively, flashing your lights to oncoming traffic after you’ve passed through the intersection is not warning rule-breakers, because they aren’t rule-breaking yet. They haven’t gotten to the stop sign. You’re alerting fellow neighbors that someone is watching and now is not a good time to be lazy or distracted.

    I believe we should all be afforded every chance to avoid contact with law enforcement. There will still be those that forsake every chance to correct their behavior.

    • tgt

      Another backing point and something that upset me in the original post. Speeding is not an issue of public safety. Speeding has a tendency to aggravate other factors, but it is extremely rare for speeding to be the cause of an accident. I look at it like carrying a gun. So long as you’re behaving properly, there’s no problem. If you get out of line though, results can be worse than without.

      • I don’t know where you get that idea. The sources I saw estimated speeding as the cause of between 25 and 30% of all accidents.

        • tgt

          When you dig into the actual studies, it’s extremely rare for the only cause in an accident to be speeding. Contributing the accidents to speeding is a horrible correlation. If 25% of people speed, 25% of accidents will involve speeding.

          • tgt

            Err…so…that wasn’t coherent.

            I was trying to say that while speeding often occurs along with accidents, there is no evidence to suggest that speeding causes those accidents. There are almost always other behaviors that are more clearly shown to be dangerous.

  7. From a policy point of view, cops can only pull over a very small number of carsk, which leads to a relatively small proportion of speeding drivers slowing down.

    If drivers commonly flash their lights to warn of speed traps, however, many more cars than the police can pull over will be warned. (A single car can flash their lights at five or six oncoming cars driving close together, but the police can’t pull over that number of cars driving close together). It’s quite possible, from a public safety standpoint, that we’re better off allowing citizens to flash their lights.

    (In fact, in theory the police could be clever — and save some money — by occasionally sending unmarked cars to flash lights warning drivers of speed traps that aren’t actually there).

    Is the purpose of speed traps to slow down traffic, or to catch speeders? If it’s more the former than the latter, than people flashing lights may be a feature, not a bug.

    • Then we should flash at speeders, not just speeders on the verge of getting caught. The fact that an unethical act may have beneficial results doesn’t make it completely and acceptably ethical. This is siding against law enforcement, and with law-breakers.

  8. Bill

    I must be getting old as I agree with you on this. I drive the GW Parkway on a daily basis and everyday I have people pass me going 10-20 miles an hour over the speed limit. I want them to get caught. I want them to pay a fine big enough that next time they are tempted to speed like that they think twice.

    • tgt

      I must be getting old. I go out on a daily basis and everyday, I have women passing by me unfettered. I want them to get caught. I want them to pay a fine big enough that next time they are tempted to walk around without their family like that they think twice.

      Now, if you were getting tailgated…if the speeders were darting in and out of lanes…you might have a point.

      • Bill’s right. You are wrong. You would be all over someone who made a silly analogy like that. There is no law requiring women to be “fettered” nor do unfettered women threaten public safety. When speeders pass me going 90, damn right I want them pulled over. If they are going 65 in a 55 mph stretch, I don’t, because traffic is going 60. What if they are going 120? Is Bill wrong then?

        Bill IS getting old, though.

        • tgt

          Pretend we’re in Iran. Then my analogy hits 100%. If you still don’t like it, try this one:
          I must be getting old. I go to work on a daily basis during March and everyday I have coworkers betting in illegal pools. I want them to get caught. I want them to pay a fine big enough that next time they are tempted to gamble 5 bucks like that they think twice.

          You have a tendency to forget that laws do not determine or always accurately reflect ethics. I don’t relish seeing people punished for breaking stupid and unnecessary laws.

          I don’t care how fast someone is going…so long as they are being safe about it. Some guy going 90 or 120 on the beltway in the left lane? Does that affect anyone else? Are you mad that they’ll get somewhere before you? Now, if you could point to a study that shows that speeding ON ITS OWN is dangerous, I’ll willingly change my tune. Until that time, you might as well be mad that I only drink 2 or 3 glasses of water a day.

          • With genuine respect, I think that’s a dangerous and crazy attitude. We should want all law-breakers, not just the “safe” ones, to be caught and punished. Successful, unpunished law-breaking just encourages more of it. It’s not up to individuals to decide which laws are “stupid’ and should be obeyed.

            • tgt

              It’s not up to individuals to decide which laws are “stupid’ and should be obeyed.

              You may want to qualify that blanket statement. There are some laws that morality requires us to disobey. There are other illegal actions that don’t really matter. I prefer a populace that thinks to one that blindly follows whatever laws are passed.

              With genuine respect, I think that’s a dangerous and crazy attitude. We should want all law-breakers, not just the “safe” ones, to be caught and punished.

              To me, your attitude is the one that is dangerous. We know the law is imperfect. While society justly punishes defectors, without some defection, all roads lead to a totalitarian state. I’d prefer the bad laws be changed to breaking those laws, but that doesn’t mean I need to cheer for other people breaking those bad laws to be caught.

              With your straight law and order stance, I’m sure you’ve reported all March Madness pools, family poker games, and silly bets (I bet you $5 you can’t eat all 5 of these hotdogs) to the proper authorities, right?

              • You are talking about SPEEDING laws as requiring moral disobedience? That is the context here.

                Some laws, as you know, are enforced with prosecutorial discretion, and low-stakes gambling–defined by the financial standards of participants– among family and friends are in that category.. That’s just rational law enforcement. For the same reason, I don’t want to see someone pulled over for going 5 miles over the speed limit, and odds are, he won’t be.

                • tgt

                  No. I was saying that your contentions (1) that we must follow all laws and (2) that we should hope everyone who breaks them gets caught are obviously wrong. You need to defend your suppositions about speeding laws particularly. You have so far failed to do that.

                  I’m very much on record as saying that prosecutorial discretion is a bad thing.

                  • I know you are, which is really the equivalent of saying that you don’t want the laws enforced at all. Without proprietorial discretion, enforcement is impossible. Speeding is a good example. You have to set a limit, but it is impossible to enforce the law strictly, so law enforcement and prosecutors don’t go after those who go 5 miles over the speed limit. But 5 becomes 7, and 7 becomes 10, and soon you are arguing that it isn’t necessarily dangerous to be going 90 in a 55 mph zone. Laws are always imperfect; and responsible discretion helps them be less imperfect

                    • tgt

                      Responsible discretion is an oxymoron. We might was well not have laws at all. The government can just decide who they want to jail. They’re responsible.

                      In current practice, responsible discretion around speeding tends to be severely age, gender, and attractiveness biased.

                      You also made another unwarranted assumption. Why do you have to set a speed limit at all?

              • tgt

                A short follow up based on the “safe” comment. The speeding laws are to protect are safety. They do no such thing. Ergo, they are an unnecessary invasion on our freedoms.

  9. Tim LeVier

    If it’s fair that some sort of speeding is acceptable, then why is it fair for cops to be allowed to issue tickets for the 1-10 MPH over the limit range?

    We really have 2 scenarios here:

    1) Lights get flashed at oncoming traffic and occasionally an excessive speeder is warned and he gets away with his previous conduct while he considers his luck and if he wants to press it again.

    2) Lights don’t get flashed at oncoming traffic and a poor bastard passing an obstructive semi by going 63 in a 55 gets pulled over and ticketed.

    Each scenario is the collateral damage of the other party’s position. I’d err on the side of #1. That’s the world I want to live in.

  10. Tim LeVier

    http://www.foxnews.com/us/2011/10/12/taking-liberties-bright-lights-big-trouble/

    A bit of an update to this story, for those who stumble on this later.

    A couple of points:

    1) …giving him a ticket that read “improper flashing of high-beams.”

    I actually agree with this kind of ticket if someone is flashing their high beams at on-coming traffic, especially at night when it would impair their vision. If people are going to flash their lights, it needs to be from “off” to “low-beams”. During the day, the beam setting might be indistinguishable and thus, un-ticketable.

    2) Ruskin says “It’s illegal because you’re warning someone,” he explained. “It’s the same thing as saying, ‘run, here comes the cops,’ You’re obstructing a cop from doing his lawful duty.”

    So, under his premise here, if I’m walking down a street and I see a cop walking my way and I tell another guy to run into a shop, I’ve committed a crime? Even though that guy did nothing wrong and wasn’t wanted by police? It’s now illegal to provide “fair warning”? I don’t know about you, but when red-light cameras are set up, a sign must be posted before the intersection to give “fair warning”.

    3) Ruskin says “He is warning people who are speeding to slow down. His intent is to impede the police.”

    He is warning people. Yes. Can’t argue that. But you can’t say that he is only targeting law breakers. He has no way of knowing whether oncoming traffic is speeding or not. Additionally, he has no way of targeting certain cars that are speeding and not others.

    Other people he is warning are people who are driving the speed limit but were contemplating going faster. He’s also warning people who are driving too slow (as a hazard) to speed up. He’s warning people who were thinking of making an illegal pass not to do it and he’s warning people that might be startled by the presence of a speed trap not to be surprised and jerk the wheel.

    He’s doing more social good to correct driving behaviors than the 1 cop sitting back from the road.

    4) If you take away people’s right to communicate with others so that cops have an easier job, then you’ve taken away their ability to communicate when cops aren’t around.

  11. Tony

    this article is assuming that the persons were in fact speeding , Perhaps the person flashing the lights is warning motorists NOT to speed since speed traps are usually in a place where people are more likley to speed. So the whole ‘ protecting the person breaking the law ‘ is invalid.

    • The ethics issue involves those who DO blink to warn of speed traps, and the ethics of the practice. The fact that the act may be ambiguous is an enforcement problem and a compliance issue, but irrelevant to ethics.

  12. Gd Mass

    Dsoe anybody think that flashing a warning for a speed trap ahead is unethical…? I’m thinking that is a bit strong because most of the speed limits are set way too low. Cars of today can travel safely at a much higher rate of speed, its just the way it is.. I believe a cop giving speeding tickets is a form of harassment except when done in a area where crashes due to excessive speed is apparent as well as where foot traffic could be in danger..Otherwise leave us alone , you have no right.

  13. RRDon

    Doesn’t warning oncoming traffic of a speed trap slow down drivers, which is the reason we have speed laws in the first place? The only harm of the warning is that the administrative body in the area of the “trap” is denied the revenue to be realized by the ticket. If everyone slowed down there would be no reason for the traffic enforcement in the first place>

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