Dahl, Doug

With most traffic laws, the police can exercise discretion

Road Rules column shares some driving insight.

  • Tuesday, December 15, 2020 2:30pm
  • Life

Q: Okay, here’s a hypothetical scenario: I’m driving down a road with a double yellow center line, when a kid chasing a ball runs into the street and my only way to avoid him is by going into the other lane. Obviously I swerve to avoid the kid, but is it legal to break the law to avoid a crash?

A: Back in 1984, the Ghostbusters responded to paranormal events in their Ectomobile, a 1959 Cadillac ambulance conversion, modified for busting ghosts.

The moment they got their first call the Ectomobile rolled out of the converted firehouse, siren whining and blue lights flashing.

And even though the siren is and the blue lights are limited to law enforcement vehicles, that’s not what got the Ghostbusters in trouble.

Maybe the police in Ghostbusters didn’t take action on the blue lights and siren because they were grateful that these paranormal scientists were ridding the city of ghosts. Maybe they didn’t take action because it’s a fictional movie. My point here is that the police could have issued the Ghostbusters a ticket, but they didn’t.

With most traffic laws, the police can exercise discretion in choosing when to enforce the law. As an example, I don’t know anyone who’s received a speeding ticket for driving one mile an hour over the speed limit. The law says “no person shall drive a vehicle on a highway at a speed in excess of such maximum limits,” but police consistently choose not to enforce one mile-per-hour speed violations.

The laws aren’t suspended in the moments leading up to a potential crash, but when considering enforcement, police look at the totality of the circumstances. If you take legitimate action to avoid a crash, and that action includes something that is a violation of the law (like driving over the curb or crossing a double-yellow line) and your action prevents a crash, an officer is under no obligation to take enforcement action.

While there’s no overarching statute that gives drivers permission to break laws to avoid a crash, there are a couple that seem to permit it in narrowly defined situations. When driving on a two-lane road, you’re allowed to briefly exceed the speed limit as necessary to pass safely. And the law states that, “Notwithstanding the foregoing provisions of this chapter every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian,” which is kind of like saying that avoiding a crash with a pedestrian is more important than all the other rules of that road at that moment.

Even if it’s not stated blatantly, these two laws get at the core purpose of traffic laws: keeping people safe on the roads. We have speed limits because faster speeds increase the frequency and severity of a crash.

But if briefly speeding makes passing safer, the law is OK with it. We have double yellow centerlines to warn us that it’s an unsafe place to pass, but if you cross them to avoid hitting the hypothetical kid chasing a ball, you’ve achieved the fundamental goal of traffic law.

And no, nothing I’ve written here gives you permission to attach blue lights and a siren to your old Cadillac and run around the city trying to capture ghosts. But if there ever comes a time when we need that service, I know who to call. The theme song has been stuck in my head since the ’80s.

Doug Dahl is Target Zero Manager-Communications Lead for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

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