Just how normalized has the dangerous act of speeding become? The other day a Portland Police officer posted up on the Burnside Bridge to catch speeders and decided they wouldn’t pull anyone over unless they were going 47 mph — that’s 17 mph over the posted speed limit.
I’ve known for many years that police never set out on traffic enforcement missions with a plan to cite people going 1-2 mph over the speed limit. I recall years ago when I joined a PPB officer for a ride-along they agreed (arbitrarily) at a meeting before the shift that they’d allow 9 mph over the limit before they pulled anyone over. But 17 mph? On a busy road in the central city?
And unlike in the days before social media, this is very public knowledge. I learned about this officer on Burnside because they posted a video of themselves on Instagram (below). In case you haven’t heard, a group of Central Precinct officers has quite a large following on their PPBCentralBikeSquad account. It’s a very interesting account that gives us a behind-the-scenes look into life on the streets downtown.
Last week a motorcycle officer posted that he was looking for people going 17 mph or more over the speed limit. Then in the comments, someone asked the officer why they gave such a large cushion.
“I measure the flow of traffic and then add 10,” the officer wrote back. “It’s a 30. Was getting a lot of 35-37, so I decided to stop folks at 47 mph, 10 higher than the flow.”
I reached out to the officer from the video and he shared a bit more about his thinking:
“I can only stop so many cars, so I like to focus on the higher-level violators. Especially in areas like the Burnside Bridge where bikes have to mix with cars trying to go right on NW 3rd Ave. When I do the Morrison Bridge, for example, it’s a 25 mph construction zone. Nearly everyone is doing 10 over and I can’t pull over every person, so I’m looking for people who are at those higher speeds since we both know how much excessive speeds are a factor in crashes, especially fatalities.”
That seems reasonable.
The only other rationale I’ve heard for giving a large cushion before writing citations — beyond prioritizing the worst offenders — is that officers want to make sure the citations hold up in traffic court. That is, if a defendant contests the ticket in court, it’s much more likely a judge will uphold the citation if the person was clearly driving well beyond the posted limit. Portland-based lawyer and bike law expert Charley Gee speculated the officer set a high limit to make any argument about their radar gun being out of calibration less likely to serve as a defense.
Whatever the rationale, the whole thing has just never sat well with me. And this many people are going 47 mph in a 30 mph zone of Burnside in the city? That’s just bonkers. The typical stopping distance for a car user going 47 mph is about 170 feet — that’s the length of nearly two full NBA courts. At 30 mph that distance is about 75 feet and a human has about twice the chance of survival versus someone hit by a driver at 45-50.
To be clear, I don’t blame the PPB for this. They are doing triage in a system overwhelmed with dangerous behaviors. And this officer is just a tiny cog in a vast culture of motonormativity where the things people do inside cars is just ignored as ‘the way things are.’
You might be thinking that automated enforcement cameras might be the answer here. After all, they don’t have to prioritize like a human officer does. But nope, those cameras are regulated by humans, so they are programmed with the same pro-speeding tendencies.
Remember in 2017 when the Oregon Legislature passed a bill allowing cities to use automated cameras to enforce traffic laws — but the law included a provision where people are only cited at 11 mph and over? In that story we heard from Beaverton Police Chief Jim Monger:
“The idea of issuing a citation of someone traveling at a lower speed of 9 or 8 miles per hour… frankly, I feel like you’d be very hard-pressed to find an officer — or even a deputy or a state trooper — that would issue a citation for that minimal amount. Just normally driving through a city it is not uncommon to have your speed creep up a little bit. Technically you’re violating a traffic law; but is it reasonable to issue a citation? So it gets to that reasonableness…. that’s why that particular number was selected.”
So blame it on “reasonableness” I guess. Sorry, but that doesn’t make me feel any better. Right now, the more people that speed, the fewer people get caught. That just isn’t right no matter how you explain it.