Speeding: How Fast Is Too Fast?

Tim Cotton

Tim Cotton | May 02, 2017

How fast do you have to be going before the average officer takes notice? (versageek/ Flickr)

How many miles per hour over the speed limit can I go without getting a speeding ticket?

This is the question, queried in many different ways, that has haunted me for the last 28 years of my career. The unnerving part of getting the question is that I really cannot answer it. It makes me sad. I really want to tell you, but I can’t. What I can tell you is that every police officer in America has a different viewpoint.

We are allowed a reasonable degree of officer discretion in our traffic enforcement efforts, but depending on the day of the week, the amount of traffic in the area, and the particular call volume an officer is subjected to, the answer is probably not the same every day. It can even change between morning and afternoon. If an officer is assigned a beat where calls for service back up regularly, he or she will not spend much time for traffic enforcement. If it is a beat with very low criminal activity, an officer might focus more on traffic related and speed issues. There are no hard and fast rules that apply here.  

Officers are allowed a "reasonable degree" of discretion. Cameras? Not so much. 

Focused traffic units, state police who have a traffic control duties as a primary function, and officers specifically detailed to an area as an answer to complaints about speeding cars during selected hours will certainly be less forgiving of speed issues. I always tried to let traffic flow safely during peak commuting hours. For crying out loud, people are trying to get to work, and no one wants to see a cop before their second cup of coffee.

My experience is that a police officer attempting to pull into traffic to pick out one car that is exceeding the limit by a little too much can make for unsafe conditions for the rest of the traffic as well as the officer. It can also bring traffic to a standstill if the targeted car stops in an area that blocks the smooth flow of commuters. I really don’t want to be that guy, and that bodes well for the marginal speeder.

When I say marginal, I would say five to ten miles per hour over the posted speed limit. If the car going ten over the speed limit is passing in an unsafe manner, operating recklessly, or pulling a bump-and-go-Daytona style, it will get special attention. If the flow of traffic is five or ten over the limit and it is moving along smoothly, it is likely many officers won’t bat an eye.

(Richard Drdul/ Flickr)

As a matter of fact, you might start looking down at your speedometer from time to time and realize that you are normally going five or so above the limit and so is everyone else. I would say if an officer focused on an area and stopped vehicles for going five to ten miles over the limit, they would be overwhelmed with the project.

People tend to “speed” most of the time. Especially in 25 and 35 mile per hour zones. School zones that are active are an area where very little leeway is given to the runaway motorist. Keep that in mind as well.

Remember, different situations call for different responses. A police officer patrolling a certain sector might have been told that the area they are assigned to has had a high number of accidents, complaints about traffic issues, or pedestrians having a difficult time crossing the road. Their discretion might have been removed by people with titles or stripes - namely, the boss.

Officers might be told to actively pursue speeders. That usually does not mean the officer won’t be allowed some discretion on whether or not he writes a ticket, but it is a possibility. I have never been told to write tickets, only to enforce the traffic laws. Written warnings are an arrow in the quiver that most cops use regularly and I think work quite well. Accompanied by a kind word and not a lecture, I think, they work far better than fines. There will be people who disagree with me. There are also people that need fines, and penalties to change their behaviors, but sometimes even those don’t work.

When a person asks me if they can be stopped for going five miles per hour over the speed limit I try to temper my answer with air quotations. “Yes, you can,”  but I wouldn’t even think about stopping a car for five miles per hour over the speed limit. Go ahead, be mad. I can live with that.

"I am not about to stop a motor vehicle for five over the limit, unless the inspection sticker or tags are expired, or the operator throws a bag of heroin out the window." (Hallows AG/Wikipedia)

I am not about to stop a motor vehicle for five over the limit, unless the inspection sticker or tags are expired, or the operator throws a bag of heroin out the window. Then, I certainly might mention during our time together that they were also speeding. Yes, sometimes interjecting a little humor into a drug interdiction traffic stop allows the interaction to be more amicable. The judge could always throw out the speeding charge anyway. The judge could even throw out the heroin charges and come down heavy on the inspection sticker violation. Stranger things have happened.  

There are those individuals who have a real issue with speed and believe that it is the primary concern in relation to car crashes. I disagree. It certainly could be a causation factor in many cases and the primary reason in a few others. I see distractions while driving, poor driving habits, following too closely, unsafe backing, and extremely slow drivers causing far more issues than those that travel a little above the posted limits.

I also think collecting ridiculously high fines for minor speeding violations is a travesty that legislatures nationwide should review and fix. I would be lying if I told you that police officers don’t think about the ramifications and financial hardship they might be imposing on a speed violator when they write the fine amount on the bottom of a traffic ticket. I will also tell you that most of the officers I have known will give you a slight rebate on the summons by writing the speed a little lower to allow the fine to be a little less. The written report would always indicate the actual speed, but when an officer does this it is probably because you have a fairly clean record, were reasonably understanding of the violation, and did not spit directly on his or her uniform.

"I would be lying if I told you that police officers don’t think about the ramifications and financial hardship they might be imposing on a speed violator when they write the fine amount on the bottom of a traffic ticket." (J John Sebastian Lawyer/Wikipedia)

I am a fan of written traffic warnings for minor violations. Most people are friendly, law-abiding citizens with very little opportunity to interact with a police officer. At both agencies I have been honored to work for we were always urged to try a written warning if at all possible.

The best traffic enforcement action is the one that changes the future behavior of the motor vehicle operator. Voluntary compliance with traffic laws is far more important that filling up the coffers of governmental bureaucracy. “They” might not like that I say this, but it is the truth

You are probably pretty safe at five to seven miles per hour over the posted speed limit, but not everyone is as open minded as I am. Use your own discretion and hopefully the officer you meet will use his.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One