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Informal vs. formal traffic laws

By: Dan Keegan

Date: Friday, 21. July 2006

A traffic ticket and a criminal record for driving at the speed limit? When Ontario teacher Gordon Thompson's story hit the media recently, it triggered a wave of letters and phone calls and even a few editorials.

It was a story that appeared to fall right into the laps of advocates of higher speed limits and present an acute embarrassment for advocates of stricter speed limit enforcement. How could anyone be charged with obeying speed limit laws?

With a sign protesting the 100 km/h limit fixed to his car, Thompson and a friend drove side by side at exactly the limit on Ontario's highway 401 last summer. Between them they created a moving roadblock that infuriated some drivers to the extent that they passed on the shoulders. Every now and then the duo pulled off to relieve the pressure but they kept this up for over 80 km on what is one of the province's major arterial roadways.

They were charged with obstructing the highway and public mischief. The latter, a criminal offense, was later dropped in return for pleading guilty to the obstruction charge. Both wound up with a fine and a six-month license suspension.

The roadblock was Thompson's protest against being fined for doing what drivers do all the time on this stretch of highway-driving at 115 to 120 km/h, the difference being that Thompson knew the police were behind him. They'd tolerated the 110-112 km/h Thompson said he was traveling at for the previous 10 km. When he pushed the speedometer needle up towards 120, the flashing red lights went on.

In the aftermath of the case, John Weingust Q.C., a lawyer who was prominent in the fight against photo radar, is described in a local newspaper article as being "stunned" by the charges. "At worst," Weingust said, "Mr. Thompson may have been guilty under the Highway Traffic Act, Section 147, the left-lane bandit provision. The maximum fine for that is $100. His friend in the other car did absolutely nothing wrong."

However, it's obvious that Thompson's strict obedience of the law wasn't the real issue here, or the source of the charges. There was much more to this incident that being a left-lane bandit or merely driving too slowly for traffic conditions. The real issue was Thompson's challenge to what traffic sociologist J. Peter Rothe calls "the moral order of the roadway," the system of trust and expectations that allows drivers and other road users to interact with one another efficiently in the everyday practical circumstances of driving. What Thompson and his friend did was engage in a conspiracy to disrupt the delicate balance between the written law and the moral order.

A delicate balance

In this moral order, traffic laws coexist with informal rules in a sort of symbiotic relationship that helps traffic to work efficiently and adapt to situations. The unspoken, undefined nature of these informal rules makes them difficult to discuss and deal with. For police, the written laws are often a tool for enforcing the informal rules and maintaining the checks and balances of the system.

A "zero tolerance" enforcement of traffic laws is hardly possible, much less desirable. We humans are not that clever at devising rules to cover all situations at all times, and sticking strictly to the rules, as unions have found out, is a good way to bring a system to its knees. Instead, we allow individuals to improvise, and they do. But, as Rothe points out, these improvisations are not whimsical or unordered. "Driving," he says, "includes standardized behavior that is at the root of all community living." People don't live by following rules exactly, but neither do they make up their behavior as they go along.

On the roadway, Rothe notes, "cars, lanes, intersections, roadway markings, signal lights and traffic signs are interpreted according to the significance they have for people's driving purposes." And while there's lots of individualistic behavior, people generally follow norms. This allows for smooth performances as drivers and other road users communicate with one another and negotiate their way through everyday interactions in traffic.

The smooth performer

The very smooth performer is the one who has mastered all the skills involved in control, tactics, communicating, making decisions, and managing the subtle interactions of traffic with the least amount of physical and social friction.

Naturally, these norms develop somewhat differently according to culture and place, and even from locality to locality. Sometimes the differences are so subtle that drivers moving from one area to another are irritated or distracted by them without being able to figure out why. Montreal drivers complain about Toronto's bad driving and vice versa. Vancouver drivers have their own unique style of interaction.

Sometimes the differences are dramatic. Europeans fling their cars around winding roadways and into narrow spaces in a manner that Canadians visitors sometimes describe as insane. Europeans are amused to see Canadian drivers balk at driving through spaces at least one and a half times the width of their car. They find the driving here sedate (even lethargic, as one tourist put it) but amazingly polite.

England's notorious traffic roundabouts cause problems for tourists as they try to figure out both formal and informal laws on the fly. On the other hand, a four-way stop intersection in Toronto is perhaps even more confusing to the European visitor. Drivers are supposed to stop but they mostly don't. Right of way comes more from communication with other drivers than from reference to the formal rule of first come, first go and give way to traffic on the right.

Sociologist Rothe has carried out extensive research into these informal roadway relationships and the role of police in maintaining order. As a researcher with the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, he spent hundreds of hours riding with police, truckers, novice drivers, elderly drivers and motorcyclists, studying and noting the system of trust and expectations that allows drivers and other road users to interact with one another efficiently.

Police have a great deal of discretion in enforcing traffic laws, Rothe observed. In a sense, traffic acts as a sort of screening device which frequently allows officers an entry point to investigate more serious offenses. They may use a minor infraction of the law to initiate a contact.

In his book, Beyond Traffic Safety ( 1994), he describes the relationship between police and truckers. Police generally respect truckers and often rely on them for help in finding wanted cars, dealing with accidents or learning about roadway problems. But truckers are pressed into pushing the limits of tolerance by the competitiveness of their trade.

"When truckers are stopped, the meetings resemble a cultural ceremony, a form of plea bargaining, a staged interaction," Rothe writes. An officer may pick on some minor technicality (a mud flap out of place or a license plate improperly attached) as just cause to stop the truck. Then the ceremony begins.

In these encounters, police officers have their own criteria for a smooth performance. They carefully choose whom they will stop and where, and "stage encounters by managing an appearance that they are preserving the sanctity of the law... They take precautions to avoid being played for a fool," Rothe observes. For their part, drivers learn to play the game. "When the man stops you, you have to know how to play the game, how to play it right so you don't get burnt too bad," one trucker remarked.

Gordon Thompson's protest was a direct challenge to this game. His goal was to prove that the speed limit doesn't work, but it does-not by making everyone drive at 100 km/h or less, but by shifting the balance of roadway power from those who want to drive at 120 towards those who want to drive slower.

Modern cars can handle speeds of 120 or even 140 km/h on high-speed roadways with ease, and little skill is required from the driver. But when things go wrong at these speeds, few drivers have the necessary skills to respond adequately. As well, there are costs to higher speeds, not just in pollution and crash risk, but to the rights of those who would like to use the highways at slower speeds. As one motorist said, "It's getting harder to drive at 100 km/h. There's too much pressure to drive faster."

The speed advocates argue that higher speeds don't mean more crashes or more fatalities. But as noted English traffic expert John Adams points out, safety is not just a matter of crash statistics. As traffic gets faster, those road users who are more vulnerable are pushed out of the game, leaving the roadway to the speed merchants.

The battle over speed limits may be more one of roadway equity and the role of the car in transportation than of saving lives.

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All Comments (13)

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Fact is, people will generally drive at a speed that is suitable for the particular roadway. Artificially low - political - speed limits do little more than slow progress and irritate drivers (and provide ticket fodder).
The Toronto Medical Officer pushing for 30/40Km limits is out to lunch, as was another city politician a year or two ago.
If only we would all drive at 10k everywhere, there would never be a road accident. But then we would want to be able to text, read and telephone just to add some measure of risk and excitement to the ride!


It's really not all that complicated. If people who want to drive slower would stay in the right lane so that people who want to drive faster can pass on the left, then all would be right in the world. Instead, we get people crawling along at a snail's pace in the left lane obstructing traffic so that people have to make dangerous maneuvers to get around them, and then tend to overdo it out of frustration. What might work would be to have a slightly different speed limit for the far left lane than the far right lane. If you don't want to drive 400 series highway speeds, then you shouldn't drive on the 400 series highways at all. There are alternatives.


I think the problem is with the judge. I can accept the concept of latitude in applying these laws, but it was the bloody judge who said that 1 km over the limit is considered speeding that initiated the protest in the first place.


I would like to know why if they are giving tickets for driving too slow then why are they putting a zero tolerance rule on drivers under 21? Why is it that 5km/hr over will give the same consequence as 50 km/hr over the limit? And why is it on young drivers under 21? not on everyone for the first 5 years of having their license? Shouldn't the rules be the same for all new drivers? What do you think?

Rick the trucker,

If you think the situation is messed up now, just wait till those new mandatory/pseudo-voluntary speed limiters for trucks are universal. Trucks will be unable to go faster than about 110kph. Want to believe that won't mess things up terribly, especially when the four wheelers want to get around the "damn trucks" and there's an oncoming string of traffic already trying to pass?


I need someone to answer this question. Recently, I received a seat belt ticket, one block away from my home. Its silly because I always wear the thing but when I approach my home I sometimes unhook, preparing to get out of the car. Officer pulled me in and several others to the side of the road. I had just returned home from a 2 week vacation. My insurance was renewed the day before I left. In BC, there is a sticker with the date of expiry that attaches to the plate. I had yet to put it on my plate. Just plain forgot. Officer said to put it on now and he would not give me a ticket. When the officer handed me the seatbelt ticket, I told him where I live and why I had the seatbelt unhooked around my waist. I then mentioned I will take the ticket to court. Nothing insulting or derogatory was said. 45 minutes goes by and the officer is knocking on my door. He proceeds to issue me 2 more tickets. One for the sticker, which I now had on, and a second one for a burnt tailight that I had no idea about. The officer nevered mentioned it until he was in my driveway. The first ticket had a warning on it for the sticker and the tickets both had the same time on them. What can I do or is this just some really strange behaviour from a small town very very young RCMP. The officer reasoning for the ticket was that he had to get his "ducks in a row" if he was going to court with me. Please help.



Squamish, BC


this guy got busted


Speeding enforcement is about revenue and only revenue. If the police really wanted you to slow down they wouldn't hide, wouldn't put speed traps on passing lanes and at the bottom of hills etc. What they should do is pay a bunch of people to drive around flashing their lights and make the parked cruisers as obvious as possible.


Look at the German Autobahn. Works and works well. In the US, there are towns that derive more than half of their revinue from traffic tickets. Safety? I don't think so.


I have a job that requires me to obey the speed limit.

Would I get a ticket for driving 100 when everyone around me is driving 130?

Dan Keegan,

Gordon, I think you brought up a very important issue about enforcement.

I recently had the experience of being ticketed for doing 131 km/hr on the 401 highway. It was in a location well away from urban areas. Ironically, I had just accelerated to move from the "fast lane" into a large space ahead of a cluster of vehicles. I did this to get away from traffic in the fast lane which wanted to go faster than the 120 km/hr I was driving. Some were overtaking on the right (middle lane) at speeds of up to 140 km/hr or more.

Unfortunately, I then became an easy mark for a police radar hidden behind a bridge abutment... easy to measure and easy to follow and stop.

OK, I was over the limit by 31 km/hr and the officer, perhaps in recognition of my explanation, ticketed me for only 115 (sound familiar Gordon?).

I asked the officer why he wasn't in an unmarked car going after the faster speeders, since 120 was the traffic norm and, as you say, the new unofficial speed limit. He mentioned something about his force wanting to be visible (although the behind-the-bridge tactic belied this). He also remarked that if I were to drive at about 115 or so “no one would bother me.”

My response to that is that at 115 everyone would bother me. I would get no peace even in the “slow lane” on the right where most of the traffic would be faster than me.

My point here is that there’s a sort of ‘social contract’ in operation in how the speed limit is enforced. I think you’re right. 120 km/hr IS now the unofficial limit on Ontario’s 400 series highways and obviously, if the social contract is maintained, drivers will not be ticketed if they are following the flow.

I would argue that the emphasis in enforcement should be very heavily on the abnormal driver who radically departs from what other drivers around are doing – ‘excessive’ speed, cutting in, tailgating, etc. I recognize that’s a lot tougher job!

It seems to me that the gap between the speed limit on the sign and the actual limit has widened a lot since you tested the enforcement system 10 years ago. Cars are more powerful now but it seems also that the level of enforcement has declined (see Larry Lonero’s 1999 article "Have the Wheels fallen off traffic enforcement" )

Now I wonder whether the social contract is being maintained or are police drifting into an easy-ticketing, revenue-generating, quota-maintaining mode?

Gordon Thompson,

10 years on, and I still have the best defense for any "speeding" infraction. I have observed that the new unofficial speed limit on the 400 highways is 120.. on other major highways, 100 seems to do. (less in hazardous conditions)
Was I wrong to drive 115 in a 100 zone?
Was I wrong to drive 100 in a 100 zone?
I'll admit that one may be wrong, but everyone must agree, it's impossible to claim that I was wrong in both instances.

Carlene FitzGerald,

At what senior age do you stop allowing an American to rent a car in England?

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