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Let's say that I drive down an interstate highway at a speed of 68 miles per hour, where the speed limit is 65. I think that I am going 63 miles per hour because my speedometer is off by five miles per hour - without my knowledge.

Would I be responsible for speeding even though I have no reasonable way of knowing that I am breaking the speed limit?


Note: I would like to assure everyone that this is entirely hypothetical. I have never encountered anything remotely like this, nor do I expect to.

  • 4
    I've noticed you tagged this united-states, but I'd like to add anyway that in some (many?) jurisdictions, the speed cameras are required to be calibrated ~5kmh higher than they should be, so that if they get you for a small amount, it actually was likely higher. And if they get you for a higher amount, it likely was so much higher you should have noticed anyway. – o0'. Jul 19 '15 at 17:44
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    Whether you're deemed culpable or not, I would be shocked to see someone get pulled over for 68 in a 65 zone, unless perhaps it was really bad weather where the normal speed limit wasn't safe. 3 mph is within the error of most cruise controls when going up and down hills and deviations of greater than that are frequently necessary for passing, getting out of the way of people who aren't watching what they're doing, etc. – reirab Jul 19 '15 at 21:57
  • There's usually a buffer zone for errors for exactly that reason. But the speed limit is there for security, going over too much is putting the other drivers in danger. That's why you will be given a ticket. Arguing this with a judge is a totally different thing. – the_lotus Jul 20 '15 at 13:14
  • @Lohoris Can you source the assertion of mis-calibrated radar guns on "speed cameras?" If they are not calibrated to 100% accuracy, or whatever the tolerance is in their manual, then they are not, by definition, calibrated. – CGCampbell Jul 20 '15 at 16:40
  • @CGCampbell no, AFAIK they are specifically calibrated in order to show lower speed than the real one, which basically mean they are calibrated correctly and then the software displays value-5. According to this random link, they actually take from the speed 5% or 5kmh, whichever is higher. So if your speed is 150kmh, it displays 142.5. – o0'. Jul 20 '15 at 17:00
19

Yes, you would be responsible. Maintaining the vehicle in a state that enables compliance with the law is the owner's responsibility, and it is a driver's responsibility to comply with the speed limit. There is no knowledge or intent requirement in a speeding violation. That said, a judge might show leniency if you came to court with documentation of a repair or recalibration of the speedometer after the citation.

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    Thanks. Can I have a reference for this? – HDE 226868 Jul 19 '15 at 17:02
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    It's hard to give a reference for this kind of basic legal reasoning involving the elements of a crime and the imposition of strict liability. This article on the burden of proof in traffic violations might help. If you google 'broken speedometer defense' you'll find a bazillion traffic lawyer sites saying the same thing. Here's one. – daffy Jul 19 '15 at 17:07
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    I might add that in the situation described (a 3MPH violation, thus presumably a radar ticket) it would be a good idea to subpoena the radar gun specifications (to check the model's margin of error), its maintenance record (to check for any history of malfunction or drift) , and possibly to cross-examine the citing officer regarding its calibration. The ability to actually do all of that will vary depending on the rules in the traffic court. Full process is often not available (officially and/or informally). – daffy Jul 19 '15 at 17:23
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    I once toured CA in a California-based rental car with a speedometer that read about 12 MPH low at 60 MPH. Would the "maintain the vehicle" responsibility shift responsibility to the rental company? – DJohnM Jul 19 '15 at 17:32
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    The maintenance of the vehicle is the rental company's responsibility, but compliance with the speed limit is the driver's. As above, it's strict liability. In theory you might have a claim against the rental company for the fines, etc, but there are likely to be contractual complications there. Also, from your own account at some point you noticed it was reading low. Which would undermine any such defense or claim from that point forward. – daffy Jul 19 '15 at 17:39
4

This varies widely depending on the jurisdiction, but you'll often see speeding tickets downgraded to a non-moving offense like "improper equipment" when the speedometer is broken.

You'd want to check the jurisdictions you're interested in to see how they define improper equipment.

Edit: here's an example from NC that sig_seg_v alludes to:

N.C.G.S. § 20-123.2 Speedometer.

(a) Every self-propelled motor vehicle when operated on the highway shall be equipped with a speedometer which shall be maintained in good working order.

(b) Any person violating this section shall have committed an infraction and may be ordered to pay a penalty of not more than twenty-five dollars ($25.00). No drivers license points, insurance points or premium surcharge shall be assessed on or imputed to any party on account of a violation of this section. (1989 (Reg. Sess., 1990), c. 822, s. 2.)

In NC, DAs frequently allow you to enter a "responsible" plea for the improper equipment rather than a "guilty" one for speeding. This allows you to avoid points and/or insurance ramifications.

Plea bargains can be beneficial to the jurisdiction for a few reasons: 1) they're specifically authorized by statute (N.C.G.S. §20-141 (o)), 2) prosecutors have high case loads and negotiating plea bargains decreases that volume, and 3) the county with jurisdiction may collect surcharge revenue from the plea (N.C.G.S. §7A-304 (a) (4b)).

2

This question is no longer one of law, but rather of "justice."

As far as the law is concerned, you are still in violation. As a practical matter, "justice" says you will not be chased for a 3mph violation.

If it does happen, the principle is extended further. Your defense is to take the matter to traffic court. A sympathetic judge may "buy" your story and let you off or plead guilty to a non-moving violation. There may be other things working in your favor; the officer may not have filled out the ticket properly, or whatever.

I have beaten all but one of my traffic tickets by going to court. In one case, the judge couldn't read the officer's handwriting, in another case, the officer alleged that I was parking in a no parking zone on a "main" street, but gave the "incorrect" cross street (one where parking was allowed)>

  • Two great examples of the difference between law and justice there. – Nathan MacInnes Jul 20 '15 at 16:52
2

It absolutely depends on jurisdiction, to my knowledge these laws are usually (always?) state-level. In my state, North Carolina, an "exact speed limit" state, for years the law was that if you were clocked less than 10mph over or under the speed limit, you were ostensibly traveling at exactly the legal limit, because police radar could legally only measure within +/- 10mph of the actual speed at which a vehicle was moving.

(This was, historically, due to federal legislation that mandated a maximum highway speed limit of 55mph in order for a state to secure federal highway funding. The state legislature complied with these regulations without compromising their constituents' ability to drive at 65mph by posting a 55mph limit and allowing motorists to travel 10mph over the posted limit. Those federal restrictions have since been lifted.)

Recently, a new party was voted into control of the state legislature, and the law was changed -- police radar is now legally exact to within 1mph, and a driver is in violation if they don't travel the exact speed limit on a given roadway. In practice, however, motorists found in violation can often plead guilty to a lesser charge -- that is, to a charge of "improper equipment" -- so the prosecution can avoid the costs they would otherwise incur by actually having to prove their case. This doesn't apply to severe violations, like going 90mph on a freeway marked 65mph or 55mph in a 35mph zone, which are often criminal misdemeanors, not traffic citations. In general, whether someone is eligible for such a reduced charge depends on their history of traffic citations and on the local district attorney's office and the presiding judge.

Some other states do not have an "exact speed limit" and drivers are responsible for maintaining a posted minimum speed (where applicable) and not exceeding a posted maximum speed. In these states, minimum speeds are often present on interstates and other major divided highways and often absent elsewhere. Where in doubt, follow the speed of traffic or stay 5mph under the posted speed limit, as indicated by your perhaps glitchy speedometer.

To answer your question explicitly, and in general, yes, as an auto registrant you are responsible for keeping your automobile in good working condition. However, there are often charges less costly than exceeding a posted speed limit for which you can accept a plea bargain or for which you can provide evidence to the court to reduce your responsibility.

(My source is personal knowledge and experience as a licensed driver in NC)

1

I guess that in most countries the driver is responsible of the road worthiness of the vehicle, including speedometer. otherwise everybody would be speeding with broken speedometers. While traveling in Senegal, Africa, I didn't see a single car with working speedometer. Mayby that's valid excuse there.

Remember that on most cars the speedometer shows too much speed to be on the safe side, so the drivers obeying the limits drive too slow. I personally use gps or smart phone speedo app to measure the accurate speed, and set my cruise control to speed just below the maximum allowed over speed of 10 km/h.

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Of course, it is your responsibility for what happens to the car, it is impossible that you do not realize the broken speedometer, another question is whether the speedometer does not score regularly, but the blame is always yours.

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