Recently, while vacationing in Virginia, I was pulled over by a state trooper for, I was told, driving in the left lane at a speed deemed to be too slow.
It was just after 7 p.m., and I was driving with my wife and three children on a two-lane highway, following behind my sister and brother-in-law's family after a day-trip to Luray Caverns. There were few cars on the road with us. I was planning to make a left turn roughly a half mile ahead when I glanced into my rearview mirror and saw a state police cruiser closely tailing my vehicle.
I checked my speedometer to determine whether I was driving within the speed limit, which I was. Soon, we entered a school zone and I caught a glimpse of a traffic sign with a speed limit of 45. I slowed down to about 45 so as not to give this trooper a reason to stop me. However, shortly thereafter, he activated his lights, and I pulled over.
"Why did he stop you daddy?"
"What did you do wrong?"
"Are you going to jail?"
Those were some of the questions my daughters — ages 9, 10 and 13 — wanted to know as we waited for the trooper to approach my window. When the trooper arrived, he asked for my license and registration. After acknowledging I was from Maryland, he said he stopped me for driving in the left lane at an unsafe speed below the speed limit and said that this was against the law in Virginia.
I have been stopped by law enforcement before, and it can be stressful. Good officers are usually able to put a driver at ease; but this stop felt different. The trooper's tone was inappropriately harsh. He countered my respectful answers with condescending responses.
As I sat there with my wife and three daughters, my mind was flashing back to the countless stories of those like Philando Castile who did not survive routine traffic stops. I wondered whether he was attempting to emasculate me by speaking to me like a child in front of my wife and kids — was it purposeful? My thoughts turned to my family, and I wondered how this would ultimately conclude; encountering the wrong officer who happens to believe he or she has a reason to fear for their life usually does not end well for drivers. I told the trooper I had a left turn coming up and explained that I decreased my speed because I saw a sign noting the speed limit was 45. He told me that was the speed limit only when the sign's lights were flashing, which they were not, and felt he had to educate me on the law.
The trooper was referring to a law that became effective July 1st and was sponsored by Virginia Del. Israel O'Quinn. Delegate O'Quinn is on record stating the law was designed to fine motorists driving "grossly under the speed limit in the left lane" to make roads safer and to address congestion. This type of law is not unfamiliar to me.
In fact, a similar bill, HB 1451, was debated last session and passed Maryland's House of Delegates by a 73-66 vote before dying in the Senate. The bill's implementation concerned me, and I voted against it. I felt it gave officers too much discretion to make pretextual traffic stops because it was not clear how officers would discern whom to stop.
Virginia's law allowed this trooper to determine that my use of the left-lane was unlawful based on what? Law enforcement has many tools at its disposal to make traffic stops for legitimate reasons, but the collateral consequence of the left-lane bill and its use by this trooper confirmed my concerns. The trooper stopped me — a man who posed no public safety concern to anyone.
Reducing my speed on a virtually empty road to 45 miles per hour in what was actually a 55-mph zone was not grossly under the speed limit, and driving in the left lane to make a left turn, especially in an unfamiliar area, should not result in a traffic stop. While I understand the frustration that occurs when someone drives significantly below the speed limit, I question whether this is a task we want to assign law enforcement.
Maryland made the right choice in passing on this law. I hope Virginia's troopers make the right choice in how to enforce theirs.
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