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The Jewish Ethicist: Speed Trap

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.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

December 18, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 9

(9) Jeff L., December 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Unpopular - but true

Well thought out and well said. I have nothing to add, but that I applaud the author's courage in coming to an unpopular conclusion - but indeed the correct conclusion following an honest examination of the issue.

(8) karin, December 23, 2004 12:00 AM

radar detectors have positive aspects also

Radar detectors have come along way in the last few years. They do have positive aspects also. They let you know if there is an emergency vehicle or police activity near by. When you get off the freeway in unfamiliar neighborhoods they keep you aware of the local speed limits (ie; schools, shopping centers, and yes speed traps.) Some radar detectors will also remind you to use your seat belt. I would say they do have some redeaming qualities, they may even get your teenager to slow down.

(7) Anonymous, December 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Other Factors

There are a few other factors not considered in the article.

1. The government artificially lowered the speed limit, claiming to preserve fuel. The roads and vehicles are designed to safely travel at higher speeds than the speed limit allows.

2. Government often uses various laws as revenue enhancements as opposed to public safety.

3. The primary problem with highway safety is variance between the speed of the vehicles. On many/most highways, if you do the speed limit, you are risking your life.

(6) Dr R Block, December 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Speedind is more than a parking violation.

Speeding drivers are for more likely to have an accident,injure and unfortunately kill other road users or pedestrians. Speed limits are thus set and efforts made to enforce them in order to improve road safety. Anything that allows drivers to continue speeding by reducing the effectiveness of a deterrent is surely not just unethical but runs counter to the ideals of Judaism.

(5) Anonymous, December 21, 2004 12:00 AM

inaccurate comparison

parking illegally, except in the possible cases of parking by a fire hydrant or in a space reserved for the handicapped, does not have the potential to harm anyone. (Even in the two above mentioned cases, the harm is only by default, as it were.) Not so speeding, which can result in an accident and harm the driver, his passengers, and other motorists or pedestrians who happen to be in the way.

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