DennisBeaverSeptember 03, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

“I was pulled over on California State Route 33 in the Central Valley by a traffic officer using radar,” a Hanford reader’s email began.

“While the posted speed limit there was 65, try to drive at that speed and you generally create a danger to other vehicles, often doing over 80.

“I was keeping up with the extremely light traffic which was going far above the posted speed limit and maintained a safe distance from other vehicles. The officer was polite, but no amount of reasoning had any effect on him. I asked if he would have preferred me to do 65 and cause an accident, and he replied by saying something I would never have expected him to admit.

“He said that for the last two years, there has been tremendous pressure on traffic enforcement officers – especially in small towns – to issue tickets even where they would have done nothing before, and that there is greater use of radar than in the past, because it is difficult to fight these kinds of tickets.

“Also, he very openly admitted that a lot of officers feel they are being used just to generate fines even where drivers aren’t being unsafe. He said he was taken aside and criticized for not issuing enough tickets. He actually recommended that I get a radar detector. It was an amazing conversation, and I actually felt sort of sorry for the guy.

“Was he telling the truth about pressure to write more tickets? Are radar detectors legal? Do they really work?”

“We are a money machine”

In researching answers to our reader’s question, we spoke with city police and Highway Patrol officers – in California and elsewhere – who have been friends of this column, under the strict condition of keeping their identity anonymous.

There is indeed “real pressure being placed on law enforcement to issue more citations,” we were told repeatedly. “This is especially true with the Highway Patrol and cities facing significant budget shortfalls,” we heard again and again.

“It is not unusual for some traffic officers to earn $100,000 or more a year, when salary and other benefits are totaled, and we are worth every cent of what we earn,” CHP Officer X told us. “But so much has changed, and the message from management is to forget about giving drivers a break, just issue citations. Of course, no one will officially admit this, but statistics tell the story,” he explained.

In fact, data released by the CHP showed that in 2009, 200,000 more tickets were issued than two years earlier. “The official word is safety,” stated our CHP source, “But any officer will privately tell you that is nonsense. We have always been concerned about traffic safety, and there is only one thing which explains this huge increase in tickets, and it is spelled M-O-N-E-Y.”

“Traffic officers – especially those who work on major freeways – are money machines, and some can easily generate several times their yearly income by writing tickets. While quotas are illegal, experience shows how many tickets should be written by observant officers during any given shift. Before, we were given latitude, and now that is becoming greatly limited. Where a driver was polite, and not going insanely fast, you could give a warning. Now, some commanders want us to cite anyone going as little as 5 miles over the speed limit. Most of us do not like this at all.”

Protect yourself

Nationwide, there has been an expanded use of radar and other forms of electronic speed measurement. While it is possible to successfully challenge a radar ticket in court, “your best defense is to not get one in the first place,” Officer Y, from a Central Valley small town, told us. He also recommends using a radar detector.

“Radar detectors are legal in California and most states for passenger vehicles. Speed studies demonstrate that on major highways, just about everyone driving a car will exceed the speed limit by 5 to 10 miles an hour or more. Today’s cars are safer than ever before. There is nothing unsafe about doing 75 or 80 in a 65 zone when everyone is going the same speed. But you won’t see that officer who has lit your car up with radar until it is too late. With a radar detector, you will generally have plenty of time to slow down.

“As tickets are being written at lower and lower speeds over the limit, with a detector you reduce the chances of getting a truly undeserved and unnecessary ticket,” he maintains.

But some high-tech features on new cars have already turned excellent radar detectors into pieces of useless junk. Next time: We’ll tell you what both auto makers and some radar detector manufacturers don’t want you to know.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.