Avoid Traffic Tickets: Old Tricks, New Magic

(Last Updated On: April 15, 2015)

_Avoid Traffic Tickets Sunday-Drive liftarn 200pxIt’s easy to avoid traffic tickets. It’s more difficult to avoid traffic tickets while also getting where you’re going efficiently and quickly. The tips below – some old, some new – can help you avoid traffic tickets in a variety of situations.

My PhD in Traffic School

California, like many states, has a statewide system of licensed Traffic Schools. If you cannot avoid traffic tickets, at least you can ease the pain of increased auto insurance premiums. Sitting in a classroom for eight hours allows you to wipe one moving violation off your slate. Almost every state has Traffic Schools or Defensive Driving courses, either as part of a state-licensed program or sponsored by auto insurance companies.

In the late 1980s, perhaps due to my turbulent personal life, I started getting speeding tickets driving on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. These were the first citations I had received since I was a teen, long years before.

When I received the first ticket, I spent a Saturday in a comedy traffic school and that was that. Until I received a similar ticket just a few weeks later.

Back to traffic school? Not so fast. In California you are only eligible to attend traffic school if you have not attended one in the previous 18 months. I was far from being eligible. However, I learned that an exception could be made, and that turned out to simply require me to appear in a courtroom and ask the judge to allow me to take traffic school again. And the new course turned out to be an “advanced” class.

This masters-level course in traffic school was much better than the first one. For one thing, we actually got to drive our cars around a parking lot littered with cones, practicing S turns and parallel parking. I always learn better by doing, so this knocked a boring classroom, even a “comedy” one, to shame.

Imagine my surprise when a couple of months later, I received yet another speeding ticket on PCH. I trundled back to the courthouse and groveled to a different judge. She squinted at me but gave me a waiver to attend yet another advanced traffic school.

Fortunately, upon completion of this third course I stopped getting speeding tickets – knock on wood. It’s a good thing, because I soon would have run out of judges and exhausted all judicial patience.

I try not to brag, but I thought you might like to know that thanks to this experience I do bring some credentials to the table when I discuss how to avoid traffic tickets. And that I may be the only person you know who has effectively earned a PhD in Traffic School.

How to Avoid Traffic Tickets

We must immediately narrow the scope of this very broad topic:
– I am not addressing professional drivers, who by a combination of personality, skills and experience can drive a lifetime without a moving violation.
– I am not advocating obsessive compliance with the law: that is, being the only person on the road who stays under the speed limit 100% of the time, and never executes the California Rolling Stop.
– I do not wish to address how you should behave if you actually get pulled over. Edmunds gives advice that may help you avoid an unpleasant confrontation that could put you in the evening news, hospital and/or morgue.
– Similarly, I will not touch on how you actually fight a traffic ticket, which is well covered by Richard Diamond and others.

Instead, I will offer some tips to avoid traffic tickets based on the advice of experts plus some personal research. You’ve heard some of them before, but Hill Surfing, at least, may be new to you.

Lane Voodoo

On a multilane road such as a freeway or interstate highway, your choice of lane is all-important. With wise selection you will avoid traffic tickets but also make good time.

The first stage of wisdom is to avoid the number one lane – that’s the “fast lane,” the one closest to the median. This advice is well attested by Edmunds, AutoBlog, FindLaw and How Stuff Works. It was also gospel for my traffic school teachers, who told me that “police are trained to watch the fast lane to find speeders.”

However, simply avoiding Lane Number One leaves N Minus One other lane choices.

The second stage of knowledge is to avoid both the far left and far right lanes. Edmunds tells you to eschew the far right lane because of on-ramps and off-ramps, and people “doing stupid things” that lead to traffic tickets. But it turns out that the far right lane is also bad because it gives you fewer options.

I came to this conclusion from riding many taxicabs between Malibu and Los Angeles International Airport, often but not always via the San Diego Freeway, which has 6 lanes on each side. I observed that these professional drivers would use lanes 2, 3, 4 and 5 freely, but strongly avoided lanes 1 and 6. After talking with some of them I concluded that an important factor for many drivers was to have lanes on both sides, into which one could escape if your own lane stalled. The perimeter lanes have only half as many escape routes as the middle lanes.

Yet I found even one more level of sagacity: local knowledge trumps. That is, when I drove my own car on that route, typically at 6 or 7 pm on a weekday, I consistently found the far right number 6 lane to be the fastest and smoothest. It’s probably because trucks avoided that lane due to slow traffic entering or exiting, yet at the particular times I drove that particular route, the ramps were not being used very heavily. Thus in this case my personal knowledge of my specific route, day and time trumped even the taxi drivers’ more extensive experience.

Here’s what I conclude from all this lane voodoo:
– Always avoid the #1 lane, except for passing.
– If you don’t know the route well, favor the #2 lane, except on a very wide highway, where #3 might be better; the point is to avoid the lanes that have trucks cruising, or trucks passing trucks.
– If you know the route well, pick any lane that allows you a good steady speed, except #1.

Herding and Schooling

The concept of schooling is illustrated by a story dating from my Caltech days.

One year I carpooled with other grad students to a summer job, 30 miles from Pasadena, in Anaheim. Bill G, a chemist and materials scientist who has since enjoyed an illustrious career, told me a tale of woe while driving us south one day.

Bill’s car was a clunker whose speed was limited by its age and condition. One day Bill was following a cluster of cars driving 50 mph on a road whose speed limit was 40 mph. He noticed a California Highway Patrol cruiser following some distance back. The road widened and the speed limit rose to 55 mph. All the other cars speeded up to 65 mph and zoomed up the road. However, Bill’s car couldn’t go any faster than 50 mph, so he continued to drive at 50.

What do you think happened? Instead of speeding up and passing Bill, the CHP stayed at 50 mph, a quarter mile back, for quite a while. Finally, the officer made a decision, pulled Bill over and gave him a ticket for 50 in a 40 zone. Bill protested that he was only one of two dozen cars all going the same speed. The cop said, “That doesn’t matter. You were exceeding the speed limit.”

In the Serengeti, prey animals stick together. The predators have to conserve their energy, so they don’t attack the herd; they simply pick off the weak, the laggards who can’t keep up with the group. Similarly, fish school together for many reasons, including avoidance of predators by sensory confusion, collective vigilance and fewer individual encounters. The strongest individuals will often command a position near the center of the pack for safety.

Bill’s problem was being the slow member of the herd, so he couldn’t stick with the group. There is protection in numbers, because the “predator” (CHP) usually can’t stop and ticket everyone. Unless he can quickly radio ahead for reinforcements, when he encounters a group of speeders he will peel off the last one, or the funkiest-looking one, or the one that is driving erratically. That is the driver who will get the ticket. The moral of the story is to school with the other fish, drive in the middle of a group of cars all going about the same speed, and you are unlikely to pick up a speeding ticket.

What if there’s no “herd” traveling the speed and direction that you favor? AutoBlog gives this answer:

Find a “rabbit.” …a solitary driver traveling the speed you’d like to drive that you can follow discreetly, about 50-100 yards back. If there’s a cop using radar, hopefully the rabbit will trip the trap and get a speeding ticket, not you. And if he brakes suddenly, you have just received your early warning in time to take defensive action.


The FindLaw article advocates invisibility to avoid traffic tickets. Basically, if your car and your driving behavior are unmemorable, law enforcement’s eyes will not linger on you and are more likely to select another ticket-ee. These experts discourage heavily tinted windows, bright colored cars, dirty cars and any kind of car customization. AutoBlog adds to the forbidden list frequent lane changes and aggressive driving. They also advocate driving a dorky car but hey, enough is enough!

Hill Surfing

This last tip to avoid traffic tickets applies to road trips. Nola and I regularly drive long sections of I-80 and I-25. The terrain undulates, so that you drive up long inclines, crest the top, then go down the other side.

Both highways have their share of speed traps, but in my years of driving these highways I have never seen a speed trap on an uphill section. This is not surprising: cars tend to slow down going uphill, and speed up going downhill. This occurs if the driver does not adjust the gas pedal with the terrain; it even occurs if he uses cruise control, because the servo does not do a perfect job of maintaining constant speed.

A patrolman might want to issue citations to discourage dangerous driving; he might also be striving to meet some goal, either for his department or for his own self-respect. Either way, he achieves his objective more efficiently if he clocks drivers on the downslope, where careless drivers are likely to let their speed get away from them.

This logic suggests a tactic I call Hill Surfing – a way to speed your trip but still avoid traffic tickets. Simply push your speed higher on uphill stretches, and pull back closer to the speed limit on downhill sections. Since the crest of a hill might conceal a radar-equipped patrol car, you have to correct your speed before you reach the top.

Hill Surfing is counter-intuitive and requires close attention. That’s beneficial: mindful driving not only keeps you safe, it also helps you be aware and thereby avoid traffic tickets.

Lane Voodoo, Schooling, Invisibility and Hill Surfing – these are four tools to avoid traffic tickets. I welcome your feedback on good ways to both avoid traffic tickets and to enhance driving safety.

Drawing Credit: liftarn, on openclipart.org


Avoid Traffic Tickets: Old Tricks, New Magic — 8 Comments

  1. Yesterday I saw the April 17 issue of Dan’s Papers, the iconic newsweekly of the Hamptons on Long Island, NY. Their Police Blotter section (http://www.danspapers.com/category/from-the-paper/police-blotter/) is nothing like you will see anywhere else. It contains the timely article “Stress Suspected in Rotary Confusion” (http://www.danspapers.com/2015/04/hamptons-police-blotter-seal-bites-traffic-circle-madness/). The article quotes a police investigation as concluding that poor traffic circle etiquette arises from “intellectual incompetence” or a “delusional state.” Keep tongue firmly in cheek as you read. – Art

  2. The highway rules in UK are different in that one is not supposed to to pass another car on an inside track of a motorway or dual carriageway, other than in very slow traffic or so I assume, and I have to say the American way of passing in any lane is much more sensible, and we have only a few motorways with more than three lanes. I have always tended to drive in the middle lane of a motorway simple because it give one more room to manoeuvre if something unexpected turns up. I was driving my father’s very fast heavy old car in the 1960s when the front tyre burst at about 90 mph, and the car wobbled all over the road, it was all I could do by wrestling with the steering wheel not to veer off the road at a sharp angle. The middle lane was the right place to be, but one is supposed to move straight over to the left had or slow lane as soon as another car has been overtaken: so stupid.

    When in a hurry I have also adopted Art’s stratagem of following another car exceeding the speed limit and following at the same speed at a respectable distance behind, since he will get clobbered before I do, and there will be time to moderate speed. One further thing about driving in Europe, the French had a huge mortality rate on the roads and a decade or so ago driving in France was like competing in a grand prix. You would be doing a comfortable 140 KPH on an autoroute and a small souped up Renault something would appear buzzing in the rear mirror, head lights blazing, LHS indicator blinking away without cease, getting closer and closer until you moved over. Then maybe 10 years ago the government introduced zero tolerance, and now every local registered car travels at exactly the speed limit 130KPH on motorways or 110 is if its raining, which is pragmatic enough. The few cars now exceeding the speed limit tend to be unfortunate Brits who are not yet accustomed to zero tolerance from a gendarme with a hair dryer handheld radar lurking on a pedestrian bridge over the motorway. They fine you 90 euros on the spot but as yet this does not produce a blister or points on a Brit licence. Another word of warning is that if you cannot pay cash or give them a cheque on a French bank they will take you in their cruiser to the nearest ATM or bank for payment by card, and then leave you to make you own way back to the abandoned car on the motorway. Having been caught once or twice (they seems to specialise in non French registered cars, especially those hurrying to Calais to catch a ferry home)) I now carry a single blank cheque hidden under the driving seat.

    Oh yes and one further trap: they time your arrive and departures on the autoroutes between payage stations and they will know if you have been exceeding the speed limits, assuming they can be bothered and they will sometimes spring out of the gendarmeries at most of the busy such stations and fine you on the spot. If you are, from memory, 25KPH above the limit, then they confiscate your licence on the spot. Zero tolerance has had a huge effect on Gallic driving behaviour patterns, and you now have to carry two sets of alcoholic test kits in each car: they have also become very tough on drink driving: almost as harsh as Scandinavia.

    One final thing is that in my experience speedometers indicate about 5% above your actual speed so that I now tend to drive with my eyes watching the PPS indicated speed which is usually a small digit and harder to see than large speedo dial. It occurs to me that this is not the best thing to be doing.

    • Nick, thanks for providing the UK and Continental perspective on motor vehicle rule enforcement. For the benefit of US readers I would offer overtake=pass, blister=citation and PPS=digital speedometer display. It’s a good exercise for me to read the UK part of your discussion while mentally flipping things from right to left and vice versa. I remember having two specific challenges when I drove in England: when I made a left turn, I had a tendency to finish the turn on the right (wrong) side of the road; and it took me several tries (while being honked at) to understand the yield rules at roundabouts (which Yanks might call rotaries or traffic circles, although not quite correctly). It sounds to me as if your next car should have a cruise control! – Art

  3. Interesting read Art and you have revealed some very useful tips on driving habit management.
    Regarding going to traffic school if you get nailed, Texas allows you take an on-line class and take an exam after you finish the class which 99.999% pass rate. The benefit of taking the course also permits a reduction in your auto insurance.
    Happy Trails ,

    • Hi Joe! Yes, the classes, under whatever name, have good value both in improving driver safety and reducing auto insurance premiums. But I was struck how much more impactful (for me in any case) the advanced course was, because it actually put me behind the wheel. I can’t help but feel that an online course would be really helpful for my online driving (computer-based driving simulator) but might not greatly improve my offline driving. But hey, I’ll take the insurance discount any day! – Art

  4. Having driven for (exactly) 50 years in California, being male, and having survived that half century doing what I consider to be (cumulatively) the most dangerous single thing that any of us will do in the United States as a civilian … I have inevitably picked up various driving habits which qualify me for an “advanced degree” in driving. For me, driving has two secondary objectives in addition to the primary one of getting to where I’m going in a reasonable amount of time. The first, and more important, is getting there safely and reliably (worth a second article). The second, and still important, is getting there without being stopped by the police for unsafe driving.

    That last objective (the subject of this posting) is entirely subjective, and will depend on the urgency of your situation as well as your patience level. In my case, “ordinary driving” on California roads tends to blend several of the techniques you mention. Among the strategies I strongly agree with is staying out of the fast lane and driving smoothly without frequent lane changes. The most important principle if you want to avoid traffic tickets is to not draw attention to yourself.

    However, there are some additional strategies I use which I’ll mention below in case anyone finds them useful.

    One of the primary things I do to avoid getting the attention of the CHP is to drive about 7 miles an hour over the speed limit, if traffic density permits. If I’m driving manually, that gives me a little leeway to let my speed slip upwards a bit before I catch it and bring it back down (in my experience, the CHP won’t stop you for going 10 mph over the limit as long as you’re not doing something else to catch their attention). I do this as a compromise between my impatience at going the speed limit (which is usually set for common degraded driving conditions such as rain or darkness) and my strong desire to avoid tickets.

    If traffic is sparse, even that compromise is hard to live with because my foot naturally goes down on the accelerator, probably because I sense there is no danger in doing so. In those cases I use my car’s cruise control feature to curb my impatience to go faster. Once I put the car in CC, I can “let go” of that part of the responsibility for driving and focus all my attention to steering and watching the traffic around me, arguably increasing my safety and that of everyone around me. As a bonus, since I no longer have to worry about my speed creeping higher than I wish, I can set my CC at 10 mph over the limit and completely dismiss thoughts of the CHP. That again bumps up my safety because time spent scanning for police officers is not only a tiring effort, it takes my attention away from actually watching the road. Win-win. If I actually do see an officer who might be using radar, I might toggle the CC lever down a couple of notches so my speed temporarily goes down to 68 or so, but that’s mainly out of a slight sense of guilt. As long as there are others on the road with me, they will undoubtedly be some going faster than I am, and the officer will have a “rich target environment” that makes it unlikely he will choose me if he wants to stop someone.

    Another ideal time to use CC is when a CHP car or motorcycle is on the road either ahead or behind you, going in your direction. It’s very distracting when that happens because you tend to ping-pong your eyes between the speedometer and the road. So I just set my CC on the 5-7 mph target above the speed limit if traffic is light and then forget all about them … focusing all my attention on driving safely vs the traffic around me.

    An alternate approach to using CC if the traffic is more dense but still free-flow is to choose a speed at any time that is approximately the median of the speeds everyone else is going, such that you are passing about as many cars as are passing you. The more adventurous (or more hurried) types can adjust that number upwards, though anything beyond 75% passed-vs-passing is raising the risk to levels where you are very likely to attract the attention of any CHP watchers.

    But it’s worth stressing that safety overrides concerns about traffic tickets. My priorities are (1) getting there, (2) getting there safely, (3) getting there without a ticket … in that order. GPS is a wonderful invention for the first item on that list, and defensive driving is the best answer to the second. The tips in this article help with the 3rd priority.

    • Charles, I agree with everything you say. And thanks for your thoughtful analysis of cruise control, which I also tend to use whenever traffic is moving steadily. I might interchange your #1 and #2 priorities, but I have no other quibbles with your excellent comment! – Art