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On Being Caught Speeding in Rural America

Photo by Scott Davidson | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Scott Davidson | CC BY 2.0


I teach at a university in North Carolina, and in 2001 I left my car at the Raleigh-Durham airport to catch a plane for New York, where I was giving a lecture.  The event in New York over, I arrived back at the airport late at night a couple of days later.

I live in Virginia, a 3 hour-plus drive from the airport in North Carolina.  Eager to get home, I drove fast in my Toyota Corolla.  To my considerable surprise, since I had not seen another car on the road for about 10 minutes, at around 1am I saw flashing blue lights in my rear-view mirror, and true enough, it was a patrol car pulling me over on a deserted and straight stretch of four-lane road (what Brits call a dual-carriageway) in the middle of nowhere.

The police officer told me I was driving at 93 mph in a zone with a 55-mph speed limit, which constituted not just speeding, but also reckless driving, a potential felony with heavy fines.

I had no excuses, and got the appropriate summons for a court appearance in X, the nearest town with a court, at date Y.

The advice you get from friends in America when you receive such a summons in a rural area is precisely this: “you must get a lawyer in that town, not the lawyer you use in your own town”.  Which I did, by looking up the Yellow Pages.

I phoned a very affable lawyer in town X, who seemed happy to represent a prof from a well-known university.  He knew all about its famous basketball team, and was eager to chat about this while he took down my details.

He asked me the name of the officer who issued the citation.  “Yeah, I know him, good guy”, was his response to the name I provided.

The lawyer said I had to get my speedometer checked for accuracy at a state-recognized checking center (he gave me some names and their nearby locations in a subsequent email), and fax him the results of the check.

He would also make sure I did not have to appear in court (over an hour-and-a-half from where I lived).

His fee would be $500, regardless of the outcome.

I got the speedometer checked, and, yes, it was inaccurate– it showed a speed of 97 mph when the officer had clocked me, accurately from the standpoint of the law, at 93 mph.  After faxing the lawyer the result of the speedometer check, he called me back.

I was really fearing the worst, since my speedometer was giving a speed even higher than the one registered on the radar of the policeman who pulled me over.  No, no, the lawyer said cheerfully– this was the perfect outcome, since he could now say to the judge I was driving with “defective equipment”, as opposed to (merely!) speeding and driving recklessly.

I said I was surprised at this, since my speedometer showed I was driving even faster than the reading on the policeman’s radar.  Surely this only established beyond any doubt how reckless I’d been?

No, said the lawyer, faster or slower readings as such aren’t relevant, if the speedometer readings aren’t accurate, it is purely a matter of fact you were driving a vehicle with “defective equipment”.  And, he continued, hopefully I can plead your case down to the lesser charge, especially since you have a clean driving record.

A few days later he phoned to say the judge had accepted a “driving with defective equipment” plea on my behalf, and I was going to be fined $75 because my clean driving record had been taken into account.  He would email me details about paying the fine.

Phew!  There would now be no points against my driver’s license, and my car insurance would not go up into the stratosphere because of a felony driving conviction.

I had saved a lot of money by hiring this estimable local lawyer!

Months later, while at a party I mentioned this incident, and my subsequent good fortune regarding the small fine, to an acquaintance who is a lawyer.  He laughed, and gave me the following scenario, saying in his lawyerly way it was of course notional, though a few facts were germane to the scenario, but no more than that.

Apparently, in small towns near major roadways, snagging passing motorists for traffic violations can be an easy way to swell the town’s coffers.  Besides, handing out lots of citations to in-town motorists only gives the police there a possibly undeserved reputation among locals for being over-zealous– far easier to lie in wait at some nook on the big road and pounce on transgressing motorists like me who live elsewhere.

The cops get kudos for a job well done.  The local lawyers (in some towns there may only be one) know all the cops, as well the police chief who is their boss, and the lawyer probably plays golf with the judge and the police chief.  Even if they have no sporting interests in common, it’s almost certain they’ve taken, or will take, their respective turns to be president of the local Rotary or Lions Club.

The local lawyer gets a nice fee for a few minutes’ work.  He may or may not contribute to the police union’s benevolent fund.   The lawyer and judge probably went to the same in-state law school, and when the judge retires, the lawyer will probably be in a good position to be his successor.

Someone who can’t afford the local lawyer or does not have the wherewithal to hire one, gets the book thrown at them, and ends up paying a hefty fine for a violation like mine, which makes the town treasurer happy.

Hugely relieved at receiving a mere $75 fine for driving at nearly 100 mph, I’ve not had a speeding ticket since that day in 2001.

To be precise and pedantic, however, according to the lawyer and the judge who agreed with him, all I did was drive with a defective speedometer on that occasion.

Such can be life, in the fast, or maybe not so fast, lane.

More articles by:

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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