TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter – August 2003

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Dog Driver CartoonHow to Keep Your Clean License Clean
The Safe Driver’s Guide to Avoiding Speeding Tickets

If you run red lights, roll through stop signs, cut people off, or do other stupid and dangerous things while driving, you *deserve* a ticket. You are a danger to yourself and other innocent people. I hope you get caught and your license taken away before somebody gets killed. However… if it’s a bright and sunny day… traffic is light on the Expressway, and every car is moving along at a brisk clip, we may have a different situation to talk about. When every car and truck is going 68 MPH, and you’re keeping your place in “formation,” do you deserve a speeding ticket even if the posted limit is 55? I think not. If you’re on a vacation trip, driving on a country highway at the posted speed limit of 55 miles an hour, and the limit suddenly drops to 25 on the outskirts of town, should you be obligated to support that town’s economy by paying an outrageously high fine in the speed trap set up just beyond the first lowered limit sign? I feel no such obligation.

A speeding ticket under these common circumstances is more than an annoyance. Sure, it’s embarrassing to be scolded by a patrolman, as if you were a careless child. Sure, the fine can run to hundreds of dollars… but the real bummer is the points on your license. That single incident can dramatically raise your auto insurance rates, negatively affect your credit rating, and even show up on a pre-employment background check (jeopardizing your chance of landing a coveted new job). You could even be charged a higher interest rate on your next car loan; rates are often tied to your credit score.

All because you were unlucky enough to get picked out of the pack, or caught in a speed trap only the locals know about. I don’t want that to happen to Urbach Letter readers. That’s why I’ll give you the tools and information you need to avoid getting a speeding ticket in the first place, and advice on what to do if you acquire one anyway. WARNING: Do NOT use this information to drive stupid. If you’re doing 60 in a 25 MPH school zone, you deserve more than a ticket. If you’re blasting through residential areas at double the speed limit, I hope you get caught and hauled up before a “hanging judge.” No. What follows isn’t to help you. It’s for the rest of us: careful, sane drivers who made an innocent mistake or got singled out for some unknown reason…

I haven’t even been pulled over in over a dozen years. By following my advice, you too can enjoy the benefits of a clean license.

Your Car. Your chances of receiving a traffic ticket are very much dependent upon the type and appearance of your car. It almost goes without saying that a brightly painted sports or performance car will attract more police attention than a four door sedan. But even if you don’t drive a Porsche, a host of other appearance factors affect whether you’ll be targeted.

Here’s What Attracts Unwanted Police Attention:

  • Bright paint colors (especially “arrest me red.”)
  • Broken taillights or burned out bulbs.
  • Vanity license plates.
  • Mechanical problems.
  • Bumper stickers
  • Custom wheels, especially chrome.
  • Out of state license plates.
  • Excessive dirtiness.
  • Very dark tinted windows.
  • Objects on the dashboard or rear parcel shelf.
  • Visible radar detector.
  • Thumping bass sound system.

I left the really, really obvious stuff off that list: racing stripes, “flames,” loud exhaust, obscene decals, etc. By the way, if you’re used to driving a high profile car or SUV, and then switch to a plain vanilla loaner car or rental (a burgundy Ford Taurus, for example), you suddenly realize you’re practically “invisible” on the road. It’s a strange feeling.

I get a good laugh when I see people with those “We Support The Police” bumper stickers and Police Benevolent Association decals on their cars. Maybe that worked when I was a kid, but not these days. The Man will cut you exactly zero slack because you sent in fifteen bucks to the PBA. Forget showing a PBA or similar card with your license. That game is long over. If somebody in your *immediate* family is a police officer or you are a fireman, it’s OK to show an ID card that proves it. In these cases, you probably will get a lot of slack, unless you’ve done something dangerous on the road.

Your Appearance. The way you look in your car also strongly affects whether you’ll be pulled over in the first place, and even more whether you’ll drive away with a ticket or a warning. In psychology 101, we learn that people are more naturally sympathetic to others who are similar to them. Most police officers are “family men.” If you look like you’ve got a spouse and kids at home (or better yet, in the car with you), you’re way ahead right there. Three cars are exceeding the speed limit together: (1) you in your beige Toyota Camry, (2) an 18 year old with a mullet in an El Camino, or (3) a “Master of the Universe” Gordon Gekko type in a $125,000 Mercedes CL600. Who’s getting pulled over first? Well, it ain’t gonna be you. Probably mullet boy. However the MOTU in the CL600 is a target too. Most cops drive sensible, reasonably priced cars. When they see somebody driving a vehicle that cost more than their house… well, there’s a temptation to “bring them down a notch or two.” This is not common but does happen often enough.

Your Driving Behavior. If you’re going to exceed the speed limit, do it “quietly.” Don’t do anything else that will attract attention. Stay in the pack; don’t be the first or last car. Don’t weave in and out of lanes. Never tailgate. Use your cruise control (if conditions permit) to pace your speed. Stay out of the passing lane. Choose the middle lane of a multi-lane highway. If somebody wants to go faster than you, great, let them! They’ll get the ticket, not you. Bottom line: keeping a low profile – with a blend-in car, respectable appearance, and “stealth” driving – is the best way to avoid grief on the road. However, if you do get pulled over, the next section becomes critical information.

Your Demeanor. If you check your rear view mirror, see flashing red lights and the officer motioning you to pull over, follow these instructions to the letter:

(1) Stop your car promptly (but safely). Pull as far on to the shoulder as you can. Highway patrol officers are always worried about getting hit by a passing car as they’re standing there talking to you. Extending them this courtesy will reduce their stress level. Turn your wheels away from the road, and shut off the ignition. At night, turn on your dome light so the officer can see what you’re doing in the car.

(2) Stay in the car. Getting out can be interpreted as an aggressive move. Instead, use this time to take a few really deep breaths and calm yourself. The calmer you are, the calmer the officer will be, and that’s a good thing. If their biggest fear is being struck by a passing car, the second big worry is that you’re going to pull out a gun and start shooting. Really.

(3) Place both hands on the top of the steering wheel and keep them there until the officer tells you to do something. While waiting for him/her to approach your car, do NOT fumble around in the glove box or console looking for your insurance card or try to get your wallet out of your back pocket or purse – for obvious reasons. If you have electric windows, it’s OK to roll yours down. If you have crank windows, do not do this. The motion looks suspicious from afar.

(4) Whatever the officer tells you to do, do (roll down the window, produce license, etc.). The next ten seconds are critical. He or she is probably deciding now, whether you’re getting a ticket or not. The bad news: you’re probably getting one no matter what you say or do at this point. However, there’s a grey scale. Even if you get a citation, there’s plenty the officer can do to “help you” (write for a lower speed, or for a lesser infraction, etc.). On the other hand, if you’re a belligerent hard case, your ticket might get a little code like “ND.” This is a notation to the prosecuting district attorney to offer you “No Deal.” And if you go to court to fight the ticket, ND is a big deal.

(5) Address the officer properly. If you’re not sure how, a generic “Sir” or “Officer” will suffice. Even better if you can identify rank and and use the proper title. If he/she is wearing a Smokey-the-Bear hat, or you can see a “Highway Patrol” insignia, the proper appellation is most likely “Trooper.” A Western-type star badge will sometimes indicate “Sheriff” or “Deputy.” Three stripes or a chevron on the sleeve means “Sergeant.” (You may get away calling him “Sarge” but only if you yourself are ex-military.) Even if you’re not, the idea of correct addressing is to give the impression you have military or police experience/connections. By the same token, don’t go overboard. If you end every sentence with a “Sir,” He will think you’re being obsequious. Cops can't stand that. Even have a name for it: “Boot licking.”

(6) Maintain good eye contact at all times while speaking and listening. “Shifty eyes” isn’t a cliché. Police officers are very good at picking up signs you’re hiding something or lying. It often shows in the eyes. So don’t lie. At the same time, don’t say things that could incriminate you. Anything you say is admissible evidence in traffic court – no Miranda warning necessary.

How To Speed... Safely. If you willfully exceed the speed limit, do it with full awareness and concentration. Don’t drive with a heavy foot while you’re talking on your cell, eating, setting your watch, reading the newspaper (yes, I saw some idiot doing that today), shaving, etc. Your best defense against getting a ticket is to be hyper-aware of your surroundings. Constantly scan the road… ahead *and* behind you. Look far down the road, through the windshield of the car in front of you if necessary. One of your best early warning signs will be brake lights way up ahead. If cars are slowing down for “no good reason,” there may be a very good reason! If the 18-wheelers slow down, so should you. These guys have an economic incentive to exceed the limit. If they’re running “clean,” they probably know something you don’t. (In general though, big trucks don’t run as fast as they used to. Many now have GPS tracking devices installed, which measure/report their speed as well as their location to headquarters. Drivers hate them.) Check your mirrors often. It’s the only way you’ll know if you’re being “paced.” Pacing is when a cruiser comes up behind you, matches your speed on a calibrated speedometer, and writes you a ticket for that speed. Pacing tickets are virtually impossible to beat in court. Avoid speeding at night. You are still visible to police, but they aren’t nearly as visible to you. Likewise, be careful on unfamiliar roads. Locals know the likely spots for speed traps. You won’t.

How You're Going to Get Caught – Speed Measuring Devices

Radar. You’re more likely to be caught by radar than any other law enforcement technology, so you should understand a little bit about how it works. You’ve seen air traffic control consoles or marine radar showing the position and motion of all the objects in a region displayed on a circular screen map. Police radar isn’t like that. All it does is measure speed. It doesn’t have a display – just a digital readout of measured speed. But whose speed? Traffic radar can’t be aimed at a specific target. It sends out microwave (radio) waves and measures Doppler frequency shift – as the waves bounce off a moving object and return to the radar unit. The beam spreads out in a conical pattern, at an angle of 5 to 25 degrees. At just 100 feet down the road, that cone can be 30 feet wide, covering three lanes of traffic. If there are multiple vehicles in that space, moving at different rates, only one’s speed will register. Most of the time, it will be the fastest and/or largest vehicle in the group. It’s up to the officer to visually determine which one is actually speeding – and mistakes do happen. The officer is *supposed* to identify and track a vehicle first, then confirm the suspicion with radar measurement. That’s theory. Here’s reality: the cruiser with a mounted radar unit is positioned in the center median or off the road or past the crest of a hill. An audible alarm is set to sound if the unit detects any reading above a preset limit. When the buzzer sounds, the officer can look up to “See who’s speeding.” The radar unit can also be set to autolock. It’ll grab and hold the first reading above a set threshold. Then it’s lights and siren time. Ready, fire, aim.

Common reality, but not proper police procedure. The officer is supposed to visually track your vehicle for several seconds first, estimate your speed, then confirm it with a radar reading. If you go to court, that’s what the officer will say he or she did. Preparing a courtroom defense is outside the scope of this article (and besides, I don’t give legal advice). However, this visual tracking thing may be the basis of your best possible defense. You can do some fairly simple time-speed-distance calcs to prove the officer couldn’t have possibly observed you first, and therefore couldn’t be sure it was actually you exceeding the speed limit. Remember, since the beam is so wide and nondiscriminatory, it could have even picked up a speeding vehicle going in the opposite direction – many radar models can’t tell the difference between oncoming and receding traffic.

Moving radar. All handheld radar guns and many car-mounted units are meant to be used while the vehicle is stationary. Moving radar has a dual cylindrical antenna that hangs outside the cruiser’s window (it usually does, but not always). One beam points down and measures the patrol car’s speed. The second beam detects oncoming or same-direction vehicles. Moving radar is used a lot in Western states and in areas with long two-lane highways. When I lived in Colorado about 30 years ago, a common tactic was for the highway patrol to come at you at 80 MPH+ in the opposite direction. If you were doing 70, that would mean a 150 MPH+ closing speed. Not enough time to react before he locked on to your speed. A quick U-turn and he was right up behind, lights a blazin’. And it was always a he. A very large he. Maybe things are different now, but in those days every Colorado/New Mexico highway patrolman was something like six foot four. They’d patrol very desolate roads – nothing for 30 miles in any direction – and pull over drunk cowboys at 3AM with no backup. Let’s just say, “Imposing physical presence” was an essential (if perhaps unwritten) part of the job description out there. But I digress…

Classic FuzzbusterEven though radar has been around for more than 50 years, good radar detectors have been available for only about half that time. Back in the day, all we had was the “Fuzzbuster” – a rather crude radio receiver tuned to “X-band” radar frequencies. Problem was, many other microwave devices share X-band with police radar: burglar alarms, supermarket door openers, etc. Result: constant Chicken Little false alarms Still a problem with modern detectors, although less so.

How Do Radar Detectors Work?

Think of a dark foggy night. A man stands a thousand feet away holding a flashlight. For him to see you, the beam of his flashlight has to hit you directly, and you also have to come close enough so he can see you through the fog. However, you can see the scatter of his flashlight beam way before he sees you. That’s the radar analogy. You have to be in the beam to have your speed recorded, but your detector can “see” the beam as it sweeps up ahead, bounces off large objects like exit signs, overpasses, and tractor-trailers. Radar travels in straight lines only. It can’t turn corners, or go through a solid object or a hill. Radar signals are scattered by the same things that scatter a light beam: dust particles in the air, water vapor (fog), smoke, glass, etc.

On a basic level, radar detectors are still radio receivers. At first, they were all tuned to the X-band frequency. However, in the past 20 years, there’s been an ongoing “arms race” between the radar gun and the radar detector makers. The first big change the gun makers made was to switch to K-band. Older detectors were completely blind to it. The detector-makers caught up, so the next change was to Ka-band. Today, all three radar frequencies are in common use. Detectors make different sounds when they detect each kind. X-band is the most “polluted” (by door openers, etc.) and has the highest number of false signals. K-band is usually radar, although some openers operate on this frequency too. Also, cheaply made radar detectors in other people’s cars can “leak” and cause false alarms on your K-band detector. Ka-band is almost always radar. It’s from the newest higher-tech guns and extreme caution is therefore advised.

Instant-on radar. The radar gun manufacturers really upped the ante with this one. Back to the foggy night flashlight analogy. With instant-on (also called pulse) radar, the officer has everything set up, aimed and waiting for prey to come in range, but without transmitting any signal – the flashlight is off. Then he can “drop the hammer,” and within one second, determine your speed. You will not have time to respond and reduce your speed. Your only hope in this situation is to catch the brief pulses way up ahead when the officer targets another vehicle. One more reason to avoid being the lone speeder on the road.

Laser. Unlike radar, which spreads out, laser light is a tightly focused pencil beam. It’s infrared laser, which means it can’t be seen by the naked eye. Traffic laser is used differently than radar. Radar doesn’t discriminate between vehicles. Laser must be truly aimed like a (projectile) gun. It has a telescopic sight like a gun. Radar operators will often aim for your front or (less commonly) your rear license plate. These are reflective to infrared as well as visible light and yield a good strong bounce back to the gun. There’s no such thing as “moving laser.” It is therefore always used in an “ambush” situation. Laser is also “instant-on.” It is very difficult to detect. However, combined radar/laser detectors are available from several manufacturers. The K40 company sells a Laser Diffuser license plate frame they claim will block laser speed readings. However, at $300 it’s expensive and I’ve heard it doesn’t work reliably.

Some people say the Valentine One is the best of the modern dash mounted detectors. It is able to detect all current traffic radar and laser units in common use. However, it’s a dash-mount, and that presents some problems. I think a visible detector antagonizes the police. Also, other drivers will “mooch” off your detector by tailgating you so they can see the warning lights (Valentine does sell a cigar lighter remote display but the box still sits up on the dash). In addition, leaving the detector exposed while you’re parked presents an enticement to thieves. If I were to have a radar detector, my choice would probably be the K40 Undetectable.

So you got a ticket. Now what? Don’t just pay it! If you do, that’s an admission of guilt and points on your license. Points = bad. The fine is bad enough but the $200 fine could be a small fraction (10%) of the total cost over the next three years it stays on your record. You’ll no longer have a clean license. While some insurance companies may let the first speeding ticket slide, you’ll probably lose your “good driver” discount. Some will impose a surcharge on the first ticket. All insurers will surcharge on the second (moving violation of any type). The average increase is 40% over the base premium. Ouch! Money is one thing, walking is another. In New York State, get 3 speeding tickets in 18 months (or collect 11 points) and the DMV will suspend your driver’s license.

Only 3% of all traffic tickets are contested. 97% plead guilty and pay the fine. By the way, there’s really no such thing as “guilty with an explanation.” You’re either guilty or you’re not. It’s like “pregnant with an explanation.” It’s unlikely the fine or points will be reduced no matter how good an “explanation” you write down on your mailed-in speeding ticket. No. Your only chance for reducing or eliminating points is to plead not guilty and go to court. Because only 3% of people do this, the courts would be overwhelmed if just one or two percent more went to trial. The prosecuting attorney (in my area, the ADA – assistant district attorney) will almost always want to speak to you before the trial begins and offer you a deal. Plea bargaining isn’t just for felons! If you’re very lucky (and are walking in with a clean license), he or she may offer to reduce the charge to a “non-moving violation” (i.e. no points) if you plead guilty and pay the fine. This is what you want. Pay whatever you have to, but keep that license clean. I’ve heard that some people offer to pay the original speeding fine to MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) or a similar traffic safety organization as a (tax deductible) donation, in order to get their speeding ticket reduced to a NMV.

Of course, everybody who goes to court on their assigned date hopes the police officer doesn’t show, and the case immediately dismissed. Statistically, about 20% of the time, the officer is a no-show, and the ticket is dismissed. Of course, if you plea bargain your ticket, you lose your shot at the no-show lottery. On the other hand, sometimes the judge will order a continuance (assign a new court date) rather than dismiss, but this is very rare. They don’t want the court system clogged with “troublemakers” like you. Frankly, it’s all about money. The traffic enforcement/court system is a money-making machine, built to extract fines from the citizenry as quickly and smoothly as possible. When you contest a ticket, you throw sand in the gears of that machine. That’s why, even if you go to trial, any reasonable objection you can raise regarding the circumstances of the ticket (“He couldn’t have seen me first, I was passed by an 18-wheeler, I don’t think the radar gun was calibrated properly, etc.”) will often serve to reduce your fine and/or points. Don’t admit guilt and throw yourself on the mercy of the court. That’s for murder cases. Doesn’t work here. Don’t construct a complex piece of fiction either. “O what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive,” wrote my friend Bill Shakespeare. Just state your opinion that the radar reading was not accurate and provide some reasons why you honestly believe an error may have been introduced. Worst case, you’ll pay the original fine (plus “court costs,” a rip-off) and eat the points. Then it’s off to traffic school to take a Saturday safety course that’ll erase up to four points on your license.

Defending Yourself in Court. The majority of Urbach Letter readers are highly compensated professionals who do not have the time to mount a Perry-Mason level defense for their speeding ticket. Nonetheless, if you want a do-it-yourself defense kit, here are some resources that you will find helpful:

NMA Legal Defense Kit. A great resource to use in fighting your own ticket. Nine pounds of information on how to fight a ticket by yourself. Customized for your state, it rents for $50/month.

The Definitive Guide to Speeding Tickets. How to avoid speeding tickets, Common ticket defenses, Common Speeding errors, Speeding Safety Tips. Very comprehensive amateur site. Great info but needs a good spell check in the worst way.

Traffic Radar Handbook . A Comprehensive Guide to Speed Measuring Systems. Includes detailed technical info on microwave and laser police traffic radar

Another option is to hire an attorney who specializes in fighting tickets for you. Costs vary, but can run up to a thousand dollars. You may want to reserve this option if you already have a ticket or two on your license, and therefore have more on the line if things go against you.

However… when it comes to legal problems in general, and traffic tickets specifically, prevention is much preferable to cure. Drive smart and drive safe. That way, you'll arrive at your destination on time... and alive.

Donkey Speed Trap
Sure, you can just ignore this article. However, you may end up driving a different kind of "vehicle."

Disclaimer: I'm not an attorney and nothing in The Urbach Letter should ever be construed as legal advice. I recommend that you obey all laws, whether you like them or not. This article is for entertainment purposes only, and any suggestion to exceed the speed limit was for illustration of principle.

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(c) Copyright 2002-2010 Victor Urbach
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