Highway Robbery: Coping with the Great American Speed Trap
(Originally published on Frommers.com, March 2008)
Picture the scene: It’s a beautiful, mild weekend day on the southern Washington coast, and my wife and I are taking our new puppy to the beach for the first time. The sun in shining. Tony Bennett is on the iPod. We smile at each other out of sheer domestic bliss.
And then, passing through the town of Raymond on highway 101, flashing lights suddenly appear in the rearview and Barney Fife is asking me to roll down my window.
The charge: 35 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone.
On a highway.
In a car with (literally) the smallest production engine sold in the United States today.
After being handed my $120 ticket and told to have a nice day, I turn to my wife.
“Do you feel like we’ve just been mugged?” I ask.
The Great Small-Town Revenue Generator Strikes Again
The term “speed trap” generally connotes a place where (a) speed limits are set particularly low; (b) the police write an excessive number of tickets, often with the help of radar guns or lasers; and (c) enforcement seems to be for revenue generation rather than safety.
According to the 2006 study Are Traffic Tickets Countercyclical?, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, towns experiencing hard times are statistically more likely to up their issuance of traffic tickets — by about .38% for each 1% decrease in local government revenues.
Raymond, Washington, for instance, now has about half the population it had in 1913, and its unemployment and poverty rates are nearly double the national average. In one good day, according to my entirely unscientific calculation, Raymond’s own Barney Fife could probably write more than 30 tickets, adding at least $3,600 to the municipal coffers.
Draw your own conclusions.
A couple more facts about Raymond: According to Wikipedia, it once gave a speeding ticket to Microsoft founder Bill Gates. By sheer coincidence, “Raymond Washington” was also the name of the criminal who founded LA’s notorious Crips street gang in 1969.
High·way·man \-men\ n (1649) : a person who robs travelers on a road.
Some Legendary American Speed Traps
Some towns are so notorious for their speed traps that they’ve gone down in American legend. Take New Rome, Ohio, a 12-acre town with about a dozen cops, all of them so dedicated to ticket-writing that they could raise some $400,000 in a good year — almost all of which went to fund the department. The town was such an embarrassment that in 2004 it was dissolved by the state and absorbed into next-door Prairie Township. The website www.newromesucks.com remains as its testament.
Just this month, in Island Pond, Vermont, longtime constable Ted Miller was voted out of office after locals decided his alleged practice of targeting out-of-state drivers was costing the town potential visitor dollars. Last year, Miller wrote some 1,100 tickets, bringing in $100,000, about a tenth of the town’s total revenues.
The National Motorists Association has a list of The Worst Speed Trap Cities in the United States at www.motorists.org/blog/speed-traps/the-worst-speed-trap-cities-in-the-united-states.
Using Technology to Beat the Rackets
Robin Hood would have loved the internet, which offers about a gazillion user-created databases to help you fight the man.
www.copspy.com and www.speedtrap.org offer simple text listings of known speed traps throughout the USA, sorted by city and town name. The board for Raymond, Washington, for example, has this advice: “I'm a ‘townie’ and I can tell you: Beware of the entire Raymond-South Bend strip of Hwy. 101. The speed limit changes SEVEN times in the five or six mile stretch.” Speedtrap.org also offers advice on fighting speeding tickets and getting speed traps in your town shut down.
http://beartraps.com takes a slightly different geographical approach, its database broken down by interstate highway, then state, then proximity to an exit number.
http://njection.com/speedtrap goes more high-tech, with a Google Maps mashup that tracks speed traps worldwide. Hover your cursor over a little red dot to get details (location, speed limit, and type of speed detection), then zoom in to get the exact visual location of the trap, on a map or satellite image. Njection’s president, Shannon Atkinson, has posted a tutorial on how to use the site at www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGau0szf2C8.
www.speedtrapped.com is a similar system that map traps via the amazing Google Earth software, available for free download at http://earth.google.com.
www.trapster.com is a mobile phone application that alerts you when you’re approaching a trap listed in their database. Several other sites, including Pocket GPS World (http://www.pocketgpsworld.com/modules.php?name=Cameras), offer similar applications for mobile GPS devices.
Sniffing Out Speed Traps & Making Them Pay
Here are a few simple rules to help you stay under the radar, and fight back if you’re caught:
Rule #1: If you find yourself asking “How do people make a living in this town,” slow down. You’re their food, and there’s a big target on your chest.
Rule #2: If you have out-of-state plates, watch out. You’re a stranger in a strange land: You don’t know the roads, and you’re less likely to travel back to contest your ticket in court.
Rule #3: But if you can contest it in court, do: It may cost you time and money, but the point is that it costs them, too, and they hate that.
Rule #4: Plot your revenge. If nabbed and unable to fight the ticket, you still have a few options open to you. You could, for instance, pay your fine entirely in unwrapped pennies. Or, maybe you could write an article for the most popular travel website in the western world, making enough of a fee to pay for your ticket, your gas, and the picnic you had on the beach later that day. Insert Bronx cheer here.
Matt Hannafin is a very responsible driver and travel writer who currently makes his home in Portland, Oregon. Oh, and his puppy really enjoyed the beach, in case you were wondering.