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What is a Speed Trap?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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A speed trap is a section of highway or road along which traffic laws are heavily enforced. Usually, they are located in areas where motorists tend to speed, for example because the area is a straightaway or has a downhill incline. In some cases, law enforcement may decide to set up a speed trap in an area where there have been numerous traffic accidents. A police officer will park next to the trap and radar traffic to apprehend speeders.

Many countries have established speed limits for their roads for the safety of motorists or pedestrians. In heavily trafficked downtown areas, for example, speed limits tend to be low so that drivers do not inadvertently hit pedestrians or other motorists. Downtown areas tend to have more dangerous traffic because of sudden stopping and starting, unsignalled turns, or hazards in the road such as children and animals. In other areas such as the open highway, speed limits are set higher to reflect traffic conditions.

A speed trap is designed to catch people who are violating the speed limit, and it is often established in an area where the speed limit is consistently violated. Common locations for these traps include downhill inclines, areas where the speed limit changes, or locations such as schools and playgrounds. In many areas, locals are well aware of where a speed trap is located, which means that law enforcement tends to apprehend out of town visitors more than locals.

Some drivers object to speed traps because they seem somewhat unfair. Especially in areas where most of the traffic is exceeding the speed limit, a change in the speed limit might seem more sensible than a speed trap, unless the higher speed of traffic is resulting in a higher number of accidents. Critics have also suggested that law enforcement agencies are not as concerned with traffic safety as they are with reaching ticket quotas.

Law enforcement agencies argue that the use of a speed trap in a high traffic area helps to reduce traffic accidents and fatalities, and also reminds drivers of the prevailing traffic laws. Most speed limits are established after careful study by transportation agencies, and law enforcement officials believe that drivers who exceed a posted speed limit are putting themselves and other drivers at risk. Especially in hazardous driving conditions like ice, snow, fog, or rain, a speed trap could save lives by making drivers more conscious of their rate of speed.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon994368 — On Feb 03, 2016

The person who wrote this article is/was badly informed. Fact 1: the 85th percentile of free flowing traffic under good conditions is the point where the probability of being involved in an accident is the least. Speed limits are supposed to be set at this point with advisories used to warn drivers of localized hazards (that is, don't lower the limit for a temporary/localized hazard.) Fact 2: most drivers don't set their speed by what a speed limit sign says but rather, by what the driving environment is. This means that speed limits can be changed by +/- 15 MPH with almost no change in the actual speeds most drivers travel at. A speed trap is a road with a posted limit substantially below the 85th percentile of free flowing traffic. Posted limits can be and are at around the 10th percentile of free flowing traffic in speed traps. If one drives at the posted limit in a speed trap, that driver is exposing himself and others to a higher risk of being involved in an accident. Also, this driver will obstruct the smooth flow of traffic. Speed traps attempt to force drivers to travel at a less safe speed.

Speed traps are actually illegal in many states since no legitimate speed study would support a speed trap. It is not the drivers traveling faster than the posted speed limit in a speed trap who are breaking the law; it is actually the local government unit trying to enforce an unrealistic and low speed limit that is often in violation of the law.

By anon938329 — On Mar 09, 2014

According to my brother, who's an attorney in Ohio, speed traps also refer to small towns whose officer: citizen ratio is extremely high (borderline illegal).

By anon933954 — On Feb 18, 2014

Keep in mind- the definition of a speed trap is when the posted signs indicate a speed lower than what an engineering traffic survey (ETS) found to be the safe speed and an officer then writes a ticket based on that low speed. Don't be a victim-- just slow down.

By anon304066 — On Nov 18, 2012

I live in a rural area in upstate NY near the Vermont border where speed traps are set up on hills (and in areas of woods or country where no one lives), where many times you have to excessively break from 55 to 30 at a moment's notice. In the summer when tourists roam through the area for its beauty, a great, great number of them get pulled over because of these excessively severe speed traps. There is no question that they are being used for revenue streams because warnings are rarely, if ever, issued (only full tickets).

In fact, I have no problem flashing lights to warn tourists because I almost always see cops parked at the same locations looking for people to nab. It doesn't do our downtowns any good either if the area is known for an excessive number of speed traps by the tourists who come here.

While I agree that downtowns, schools and playgrounds should have 30 mph limits, I don't think hills with straightaways surrounded by woods or fields should warrant these kinds of limits.

By anon288857 — On Sep 01, 2012

Speed traps are fine, but you do have unscrupulous cities and towns that put up those darn orange construction barrels and signs saying there is road construction and gives an unreasonable speed limit sign and leaves them there for over a year when there is no construction going on. They are there just to catch people going faster than their construction sign.

I went on a motorcycle rally one time. Most in the rally were police officers from another part of the state. They were complaining about this town as being a bad speed trap.

By Penzance356 — On Jun 19, 2011

@Windchime - That's an interesting point you make about the legalities of speed traps. I'm not sure if the authorities have to let you know, but it would be a good idea.

I am interested in this issue from a personal perspective, having once been knocked down by a motorist in a busy urban area. That driver wasn't actually breaking the law, but his speed was still excessive for the location and weather conditions.

Considering my experience I feel that while speed traps are useful, there has to be some element of common sense on the part of every driver. Just because the limit is set at say 30 mph doesn't mean you have to aim for that at every stage of your journey.

By Windchime — On Jun 18, 2011

I always thought that the public had to be notified of any speedtrap that is in a particular area, even if the actual device is hidden. (That would be a good thing anyhow, as such signs would probably make people drive more carefully.)

Sometimes I hear stories about people who warn others of traps, through dedicated Internet sites or more informally, perhaps with CB radio. That kind of thing should be made much more difficult to do.

In my opinion, anyone who seeks out speed trap locations in order to avoid them (and break the speed limit elsewhere), should have their license revoked. Those who aid and abet this by adding information to the websites I mentioned should be held equally responsible.)

By JessicaLynn — On Jun 17, 2011

@sunnySkys - A speed trap would probably be a good thing for your commute. However I worry that people are getting too tech savvy for speed traps to work anymore! I know there is a speed trap app you can get for your phone that tells you where speed traps are.

If people know the exact location there's nothing to stop them from slowing down for a little while near the trap and then speeding up again a few minutes later!

By sunnySkys — On Jun 17, 2011

@comfyshoes - I think speed trap laws are generally a good thing too. I have a long commute from work and let me tell you people sometimes get crazy with the speeding! Truthfully I wish they would set up a few speed traps in the area to make the roads safer for all of us.

By Janismiller — On Jun 17, 2011

@comfyshoes – I agree with you. Speed detectors catch people who are participating in risky driving behavior.

I even think the term speed trap is a misnomer. It implies that people are being caught unaware. How could you possibly be caught unaware if you know you are driving above the speed limit?

You are simply taking a risk, just like someone who shoplifts, hoping he won’t get caught. When someone shoplifts and gets caught do they call it a theft trap. Of course not, that would be ridiculous.

I also get irritated about the speed trap detectors called laser jammers, that are used to avoid the laser speed traps. Why do people spend so much time, energy, and money trying to break the law instead of just obeying it?

By comfyshoes — On Jun 17, 2011

I think that a speed traps and red light cameras help catch drivers that are participating in risky driving behavior. I love the idea of a speed trap by an elementary school because people know that the posted speed limits are usually 30 miles per hour.

I had a friend that got a $250 ticket because she was speeding in a school zone. It is really dangerous to speed in these areas because you have children all over the place. At my kid’s school it is impossible to speed because there is a police officer directing traffic right in front of the school. So no one dares to speed there.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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