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July 06, 2021 National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

Why Judges Should Get Serious About Serious Speeding

By Hon. Richard Ginkowski, Pleasant Prairie, WI

A young man before me recently was cited for driving 114 miles per hour, 69 miles per hour over the posted speed limit.  It was not the first time, nor will it be the last that I see such a serious violation.  Sometimes it’s even more egregious – and the problem with excessive speed is getting some attention.

Just after the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring of 2020 many colleagues began sharing concerns about an increasing number of excessive speeding cases.  Now there’s hard data. Both the California Highway Patrol and Minnesota State Patrol reported the number of motorists arrested for driving 100 miles per hour or more in 2020 was double what it was in 2019.  Other states report similar increases. Chief Matt Langer of the Minnesota State Patrol said excessive speeding is “out of control.”  And it’s deadly.

In Minnesota, 120 people lost their lives in crashes related to excessive speed last year – up 62% from 2019, according to the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety.  Nationwide, about 42,000 people were killed and 4.8 million injured in traffic crashes last year, an 8% increase over 2019 but it's even worse than that because, as the National Safety Council estimated, highway miles traveled was down 13% due to the pandemic.  In other words, more people killed and injured even though people drove less.

If there’s any good news in this data, it might be that NHTSA reported that 28% of the nation’s traffic fatalities were alcohol related (some of us are old enough to remember when it was twice that).  But here’s the other shoe: Excessive speed accounted for 26%. That means excessive speed is now about as dangerous as drunken driving.

In 1982 the Wisconsin legislature closed the season for plea bargaining in operating under the influence cases by enacting a law requiring judicial approval of any proposed dismissed or amended charges.  We are only permitted to allow this if we find the proposed amendment or dismissal is consistent with the public's interest in deterring the operation of motor vehicles while impaired.  (In some situations, judges may dismiss implied consent refusal cases if a defendant pleads guilty to the underlying operating under the influence charge.)

Is it time – even with our busy calendars and clogged dockets – for judges to get similarly serious about seriously excessive speeding? It may be difficult to come up with a uniform definition of what is “seriously excessive.”  Certainly, someone driving 11 or 15 miles per hour over the limit is not on our radar.  Perhaps we can look to Illinois for guidance as state law was recently changed to prohibit “supervision” for speeding 35 or more miles over the posted speed limit. And even if we had a working definition of seriously excessive speed what would be our approach?

In the absence of legislative mandates, it is likely up to us as judges to fashion our own approaches.  For example, I am considering requiring mandatory appearances in cases where someone was cited for driving either 100 or more miles per hour or 35 or more miles per hour over the posted limit.  In egregious cases. I have used my authority to order license suspensions (as I did with the young man driving 69 miles per hour over the speed limit). I am under no illusion these or other modest measures are a magic wand we can wave to make this problem go away but doing nothing is likely guaranteed to accomplish nothing.

What are other judges doing with seriously excessive speeding cases?  I would like to follow up with another article or a Gavel Talks podcast.  Please share your thoughts with me ([email protected]).