The Jewish Ethicist: Speed Trap


Are radar and laser detectors ethical?

Q. Is it ethical to use devices that warn drivers of speed traps?

A. Many devices are sold which can detect the presence of speed detectors
used by police, though they are becoming less effective as technological
means used by law enforcers are becoming much more sophisticated. These
devices are very popular and are completely legal in many areas.

It would seem to be obvious that a device whose only object is to evade law
enforcement should be unethical. However, a variety of arguments are
brought to justify these devices: Let's examine a few:

1. Self defense. Police speed detectors are not always accurate; the radar
detector reminds the driver to look at the speedometer so that he will be
able to defend himself against an unjustified speeding ticket and honestly
testify that he was not speeding.

This excuse is not inappropriate in and of itself, but today's speed
detectors are highly accurate and so it is no longer germane.

2. Positive reminder. Sometimes a person speeds unintentionally. When the
radar detector goes off, it reminds the driver to slow down.

Again, the argument is not illogical, but speed alarms could be made at a
much lower cost yet we see that there is no market for them. Studies show
that detector users drive consistently over the speed limit; many
deliberately set their cruise controls at a speed above the limit.

3. Fair play. Speed detection is just a game between drivers and law
enforcement officials. This is a sophisticated argument which goes like
this: Speeding is not like stealing, something which is inherently wrong.
It's a behavior that can sometimes be justified, but the law can't let it
get out of hand. Therefore, enforcement procedures and sanctions are
applied to make sure that speeding is not the norm. But sometimes
individual judgment is needed, and a person can ethically speed while
accepting the consequences that he may get a ticket.

This argument, like the others, holds water as far as it goes. Jewish
tradition educates us to respect the law, but not to worship it. On
occasion, there may be times when a person may be ethically justified in
bending the law and facing the consequences. Sometimes you have an
important appointment but no change to put in the meter; you may decide
that it's worthwhile to risk the ticket and not miss your appointment.

If speeding is like stealing, then it should never be countenanced; if it
is like parking without feeding the meter, it can be justified in
occasional situations of special need. Since I am not an expert on traffic
safety, I can't really tell. (Legally, it seems somewhere in between; like
stealing, it is a crime, but like parking violations we allow people to get
off with a fine.)

But no matter how we view speeding, radar detectors are definitely
improper. Even if we view speed detection as a game, the game has to be
played fairly. We certainly should acknowledge the need for law enforcers
to use reasonable means to keep speeding under control, in order to provide
safety for everyone. If many people have effective radar detectors,
enforcement becomes impossible; if only a few have them, enforcement
becomes inequitable. Radar detectors are an expensive investment in foiling
legitimate public efforts to enable safe travel, and they constitute
cheating in the law-enforcement game.

Ours is a society that loves games. In business we love competition,
whereby productive activity is the by-product of a game among firms; in
courts we adhere to an adversary process that creates rivalry between
competing legal teams; and in law enforcement we have situations where
enforcers and flouters are locked in a kind of cynical game of upholding
standards. Games are not the most educational way to attain important
social goals, and in Judaism the emphasis is far more on the individual
ethical obligation rather than on incentives and enforcement. Even so,
these games do have legitimacy and a certain effectiveness in maintaining
social order -- but only if we play by the rules.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

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