To most of us, driving at or under the speed limit is a surefire way to avoid having to look at reds and blues through our rearview mirrors. I got pulled over for actually going the speed limit because of what’s known in Michigan as the Basic Speed Law. It was bullshit, so I fought it. And I won.
As some of you may know, that green Jeep in the picture above is a seasoned off-roader, having tackled the harsh snow of Colorado, the steep rocks of Moab, and the loose Silver Lake Sand Dunes in Michigan with me behind the wheel.
But to one officer in Troy, Michigan, this car isn’t capable of driving 40 mph on a straight, well-lit, wide road covered in about one inch of compact snow.
The day was December 16, and I had just finished up writing a post about Tesla Superchargers late at night. Seeing as I hadn’t eaten a thing all day, I threw on some clothes, hopped into Project Swiss Cheese, and headed to Hunter House, my favorite Detroit-area burger spot on Woodward Avenue.
There was a dusting of snow coming down, and about an inch or two of the stuff compacted to the road, but the Jeep handled it like a champ. No problems there. Then I got to Maple Road in Troy, and drove past a police officer (who was driving very slowly), after which I was immediately pulled over.
Confused about what was going on, I just slowly turned onto a side street, came to a halt, and shut off the vehicle. Then a police officer came running to my Jeep, beaming his flashlight into the passenger’s seat, as if to look for something. I was a bit concerned; I had no clue what was going on.
“You were going too fast for conditions,” he said. “Just because you’re in a big SUV doesn’t mean you can drive quickly in snow.”
I asked, “How fast should I have been going?” And he told me I should have been going about 35 mph—the speed limit, which I was going, was 40 mph.
I then mentioned that this seemed somewhat subjective, at which point the officer said something to the effect of “What matters isn’t what you think, what matters is what I think.” And that was the end of it.
He cited me under Michigan’s Basic Speed Law, which is explained on this attorney’s website:
When weather conditions change, the Michigan Basic Speed Law (MCL 257.627) requires drivers to “drive at a careful and prudent speed not greater than nor less than is reasonable and proper, having due regard to the traffic, surface, and width of the highway and of any other condition then existing.”
For example, if the road goes from dry to snowy and icy, you are expected to drive according to that inclement weather. In this case, you would drive with more caution, and slower than the posted speed limit.
Even if you’re driving the speed limit in inclement weather, it is possible to get a ticket for going too fast or too slow in such weather.
In other words, the law means you can be cited for driving what an officer thinks is an unsafe speed for conditions.
Fast forward a few months, and I went into court for an informal hearing. The judge asked the officer what had happened, and the officer said he thought I was going too fast for conditions.
When the judge asked me why I was going as fast as I was, I told him I thought my vehicle could handle the conditions just fine. The judge cut me off, and berated me, saying something to the effect of: “Nobody cares what you THINK. We don’t need opinions here.”
I then made the case that my Jeep, with its all-terrain tires, four-wheel drive system, and a highly experienced driver behind the wheel (especially on loose surfaces) handled the snow without issue—there was no skidding or sliding. (I did not mention that I had spent the hour prior to the traffic stop practicing winter driving by ripping monstrous donuts in a parking lot. Probably a smart move, there).
The judge asked me if I had modified the brakes. I told him no, they were stock, and he then made the case that I wouldn’t have been able to stop quickly enough if someone had run into the road.
I tried explaining the basic physics of how braking on loose surfaces works (the tires matter, the brakes really don’t), but that was lost on the judge. In the end, he asked me if I had driven past the officer, I told him yes, and that was it. The judge said “You don’t pass an officer,” and he told me to leave the courtroom.
Now, normally, if I do something wrong, like if I get pulled over for speeding, I pay the fine, because I know I did something wrong. But this time, because I knew I was in the right, I filed for an appeal.
Fast forward another month, and I head into the courthouse for the pre-formal hearing. Except this time I didn’t come alone—I brought attorney Steve Lehto, former Jalopnik columnist, current Road & Track contributor, and an absolute badass in the courtroom.
I found that last part out rather quickly, as the conversation between Steve and the prosecutor went something like:
Prosecutor: “Maybe we’ll drop it from two to one point.”
Lehto: “You know, I’ve never seen someone actually get pulled over for going the speed limit in snow without there being an accident or fishtailing or anything.”
Lehto: “Plus, he’s a really nice guy.”
Prosecutor: “Ok then, no points. We’ll call it impeding traffic.”
That was it. That took all of 30 seconds to slash those two points off my record.
Granted, I still had to pay $130 for the impeding traffic violation, when I know I did nothing wrong. I think it’s bullshit, but Steve Lehto—professional that he is—just considers it business as usual. Though he did admit that this incident was a bit different:
However, I will say that in 25 years of practice, I have never seen a basic speed law violation written where there was not more to it, like an accident or spinout.
Do I think they pulled me over because my car’s a junker? I do, but remember, there’s no place for opinions here, and it doesn’t matter what I think.
Regardless, there’s a lesson to be learned here, and it is not “Go under the speed limit when there’s snow.” The lesson is “Don’t pass an officer when there’s snow,” because, in some states where there’s a Basic Speed Law, that officer will show you who’s boss, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
You can read more about the Basic Speed Law in Steve Lehto’s piece on Road & Track.