Road Rules: When can police cars speed?


In the Aug. 31 edition of Road Rules, Target Zero Manager Doug Dahl answered a question that many have wondered: Is it lawful for police vehicles to exceed posted speed limits without having their emergency signals activated?

Dahl explained, during his previous career as a deputy sheriff, he’d see a car approaching in his rear-view mirror and knew the moment the driver figured out they were about to pass a patrol car. 

“The nose of their car would dip as they hit the brakes and moved to the right lane behind me. After several cars stacked up, another one would come up in the passing lane and do the same thing, but now there was no room to move to the right,” Dahl stated in his article. “Eventually we’d have a convoy of cars traveling exactly at the speed limit.”

Dahl also said, when he was a new deputy responding to a middle-of-the-night call for a burglary alarm, he flipped on his emergency lights and started to accelerate. 

“My training officer flipped the lights back off and said, ‘Nine out of 10 of these alarms are false. Don’t put yourself and everyone else on the road at risk for a false alarm,’ ” Dahl recalled in his article. “Even if an officer isn’t responding at high speeds, the flashing lights alone induce other drivers to sometimes make dangerous choices. He offered an alternative. Consider the risk factors – traffic volume, visibility, road conditions – and drive at a speed that’ll get you to the call promptly without inducing the driving risks of a full-on emergency response. We called it an expedited response.”

Dahl wrote, after being the cause of several traffic jams, he decided that driving a few miles an hour over the speed limit was better than packing a bunch of cars together on the freeway. By going 74 mph in a posted 70 mph zone, those backups disappeared, he stated. 

“You wouldn’t think a small increase would make a difference, but it suggested that most of the drivers, even if they were speeding, were keeping it close to the speed limit,” Dahl stated. “Years later, when I turned into a traffic safety nerd, I confirmed that hypothesis, borrowing a radar gun for a completely non-scientific survey of vehicle speeds on the freeway. Turns out that almost all of them were within five mph of the speed limit.”

In Dahl’s examples, he questioned if he was justified in speeding. Dahl added that he was certainly able to rationalize it. 

“However, in Washington, the law permits an emergency vehicle to speed only when responding to an emergency call, and only when using “visual signals” (flashing emergency lights). I suspect though, the expedited responses don’t have you concerned. What probably prompted your question was seeing police zooming by for no apparent reason,” Dahl stated. “The law is clear: It’s never OK (or legal) for police vehicles to speed just because they feel that they can get away with it.”

Dahl stated that speed is a risk factor in driving. Speeding contributes to a third of fatal crashes in Washington.

“For every 1 percent increase in vehicle speed, traffic fatalities increase by 4 percent. Speeding decreases a driver’s time to react to a hazard and increases the severity of a crash. No one is immune from the consequences of speeding, and we all have a responsibility to respect the speed limit,” Dahl wrote.