What is a Speed Trap?

When most people think about speed traps, they think about small town police hiding behind billboards or waiting to pick off motorists right where the speed limit changes.

But the real answer is much simpler: A speed trap exists wherever traffic enforcement is focused on extracting revenue from drivers instead of improving safety, made possible by speed limits posted below the prevailing flow of traffic.

Detailed research by the U.S. Department of Commerce has shown that the safest rate of travel is a few miles per hour above the average traffic speed. Enforced speed limits set below that average speed are speed traps, sacrificing safety for revenue.

The National Motorists Association position on speed limits details this idea further:

Speed limits should be based on sound traffic-engineering principles that consider responsible motorists’ actual travel speeds.

Typically, this should result in speed limits set at the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic (the speed under which 85 percent of traffic is traveling).

These limits should be periodically adjusted to reflect changes in actual traffic speeds.

Speed Trap Set Ups

Many times a speed trap is set up by law enforcement at the point where the speed limit changes rather quickly, let’s say from 55 mph down to 45 mph at the edge of a town. A speed trap can be handled by patrol officers or automated traffic enforcement such as speed cameras or red-light cameras at intersections that also utilize speed cameras.

Sometimes, the only reason the police exist in a small speed trap town is to make money through traffic citations. Policing for profit helps pay for both the police and puts money in the town coffers. This is the worst kind of policing because police have become money generators instead of what police should do—protect and serve!


Many times, unsuspecting out-of-towners are the ones caught in the net set by police. The NMA encourages motorists who receive traffic tickets to always fight their ticket but the odds will generally be stacked against you if the ticket you receive is on a road trip and you have no way of fighting it in person. Reported speed trap towns are notorious for doing everything in their power to take your money.

Policing for Profit

During the 2018 Ohio Legislative Session, lawmakers are working to curb traffic fine overreach by local municipalities. Speed cameras can also be speed traps and in Brice, Ohio that seems to be the case. According to the state auditor’s report in 2017, Brice made 73 percent of its general fund through speed cameras tickets that were either hidden in orange barrels or handheld by patrol officers. Brice only has 110 residents.

In Castleberry, Alabama, town of 550 residents and with a main street only 600 feet long, police not only ticketed drivers, they sometimes take motorist’s cash and even cars. Fifteen motorists recently filed a lawsuit against the small town. Police were hired only in 2009 to cash in on the immensely lucrative civil asset forfeiture program (supposedly a drug interdiction program) that allows police to keep 100 percent of the proceeds. But the problem is—many times the cash and cars seized had nothing to do with drugs. Motorists have been having a hard time getting their cash and cars back too even if they and their stuff is deemed not guilty.

In our nation’s capital, one speed trap speed camera, serving a busy feeder road onto Interstate 295, generated more than $20 million in fines for fiscal year 2016. This camera was actually only in place for half the year but accounted for more than 10 percent of the roughly $190 million for all the automated traffic cameras in the D.C. area.

Big Business

Make no mistake, speed traps are not just big business for small towns but states as well. States receives $450 million in federal cash to run speed traps and roadblocks.  States now are resisting efforts to be more transparent and accountable for the programs that are being funded by our tax dollars.

The NMA has identified Seven Ways to Shut down a Speed Trap.  Another important tool motorists can use if slammed with a ticket is report the incident to the NMA’s sister website called SpeedTrap.org. Hopefully, you will help some other motorist take caution next time he or she rolls through a speed trap area.

If you have further questions about speed traps, please contact the NMA at nma@motorists.org.

Driving in America, a new blog by the NMA, shines a spotlight on specific issues that affect motorists across America. 

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