Q: Is it lawful for police vehicles to exceed posted speed limits without having their emergency signals activated?
A: Years ago in a former career I was a freshly minted deputy sheriff, ready to protect and serve, and set a good example of safe driving. I made a commitment to always follow the speed limit. It did not take long to discover that a few other drivers I shared the road with did not have that same commitment.
My commute to work included a good stretch of freeway driving, and you can guess what would happen (but I’ll tell you anyway.) I’d see a car approaching in my rear-view mirror and know the moment the driver figured out they were about to pass a patrol car. The nose of their car would dip as they hit the brakes and moved to the right lane behind me. After several cars stacked up, another one would come up in the passing lane and do the same thing, but by then was no room to move to the right. Eventually, we’d have a convoy of cars traveling exactly at the speed limit.
I also remember getting a middle-of-the-night call for a burglary alarm. I flipped on my emergency lights and started to accelerate. My training officer flipped the lights back off and said, “Nine out of ten of these alarms are false. Don’t put yourself and everyone else on the road at risk for a false alarm.” Even if an officer isn’t responding at high speeds, the flashing lights alone induce other drivers to sometimes make dangerous choices. He offered an alternative. Consider the risk factors–traffic volume, visibility, road conditions–and drive at a speed that’ll get you to the call promptly without inducing the driving risks of a full-on emergency response. We called it an expedited response.
To finish the story I began with, after being the cause of several traffic jams, I decided that driving a few miles an hour over the speed limit was better than packing a bunch of cars together on the freeway. By going 74 mph in a 70 zone, those backups disappeared. You wouldn’t think a small increase would make a difference, but it suggested that most of the drivers, even if they were speeding, were keeping it close to the speed limit.
Years later, when I turned into a traffic safety nerd, I confirmed that hypothesis, borrowing a radar gun for a completely non-scientific survey of vehicle speeds on the freeway. Turns out that almost all of them were within 5 mph of the speed limit.
In the examples I just gave, was I justified in speeding? I was certainly able to rationalize it. However, in Washington, the law permits an emergency vehicle to speed only when responding to an emergency call, and only when using “visual signals” (flashing emergency lights.) I suspect though, the expedited responses don’t have you concerned; what probably prompted your question was seeing police zooming by for no apparent reason. The law is clear: it’s never OK (or legal) for police to speed just because they feel that they can get away with it.
We know speed is a risk factor in driving. Speeding contributes to a third of fatal crashes in Washington. For every 1% increase in vehicle speed, traffic fatalities increase by 4%. Speeding decreases a driver’s time to react to a hazard and increases the severity of a crash. No one is immune from the consequences of speeding, and we all have a responsibility to respect the speed limit.
Doug Dahl writes a weekly traffic column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.