Auto drivers around the world are bound to relate to this experience. You round a bend and see a police car idling on the shoulder. Your immediate reaction is to tap the brakes, glance at the speedometer and pray you weren't speeding. In the United States, speeding tickets are at an all-time high in numerous jurisdictions.
Speeding through speed traps
Washington State Trooper Brandy Kessler parks in the median of Interstate 5 just north of Olympia in Washington State. This is a well-known speed trap. Still, drivers race past her — and her radar speed gun. She identifies one car going over 105 in a 96 km/h zone, then a green SUV doing 111.
She decides to stop the SUV. Kessler sets down the radar gun. Then she pulls out onto the highway, lights flashing. No siren needed. The driver of the green SUV dutifully pulls to the side of the road.
"The reason I stopped you is because you're doing 111 back there," Kessler tells him when he rolls down his window. "Is there any reason you're 15 k over?" The driver mumbles an excuse, but the trooper isn't buying it. "Following traffic and not paying attention, huh?" she says as she gets out her pen and ticket book.
Like troopers around the nation, Kessler can exercise discretion in dealing with speeders. But she rarely lets them off with just a warning. "I write everybody for speeding," she says. "If I'm going to stop a car and put my life in danger and stand outside that car while traffic is going by at 96 or 112, then I'm going to write that ticket."
Changing behavior on the road
That approach conforms with the message coming down the chain of command.
John Batiste, chief of the Washington State Patrol, is pleased with his officers' efforts. "The policy that I told them I want instituted is less tolerance associated with speed in order to change bad driving behavior, to drive down speed-related collisions and it has worked."
As proof, he points to the numbers. Five years ago, troopers issued a ticket to a speeder less than half the time. Now, 63 percent of speed-related stops result in a fine. The rest get warnings.
Meanwhile, traffic fatalities in Washington State — as in the nation as a whole — are the lowest they've been in more than 50 years. There are many factors, but Chief Batiste is convinced tougher enforcement plays a role.
"Research tells us that an individual who receives a citation [drives carefully] for a longer period after receiving that citation versus an individual who receives a warning. Within a matter of days, they go back to bad driving habits — speeding."
Citations also went up in neighboring Oregon, but for a different reason.
In 2006, the Oregon State Police issued 49,000 speeding tickets. That jumped to 60,000 last year. That's purely a function of more troopers on the road, according to an agency spokesman. Oregon is hiring more officers after making deep layoffs years ago. Unlike in Washington, though, warnings are going up faster than tickets.
The National Motorists Association is a group that publicizes notorious speed traps and helps members fight to have their tickets dismissed.
Its executive director offers a different take on the newly vigorous enforcement. Gary Biller contends cash-strapped American cities have turned to traffic violators for a quick bailout.
"We're definitely seeing a national trend over the last several months which we correlate directly to the last couple of years of tough financial times for both local and state governments," says Biller.
Biller says drivers going no more than 10-15 kilometers per hour over the limit would usually get a pass from the police, but no longer.
He bases that observation on anecdotal reports from association members around the country. "Where there's this kind of unwritten understanding that there is a few miles above the speed limit that's kind of a cushion, that seems to be dwindling to zero tolerance."
State and local police agencies vigorously deny there's a crackdown to generate more money. However, politicians have added surcharges to traffic tickets so that the present level of enforcement brings in more money.
The National Motorists Association has ranked states it considers most fair to drivers. Wyoming and Idaho topped the list. The two Western states have high maximum speed limits, no toll roads and no automated camera enforcement for speeding and red light runners.
Watch yourself, though, if you come to visit the U.S.A. and drive on the busy roads of lowest-ranked New Jersey and Ohio.