Guilty in Ohio: Speeding Convictions by the Art of Observation

By Gary Biller, NMA Executive Director

As outlined in an NMA email alert sent to Association members nationwide in early June, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a driver can be convicted of speeding based on a police officer’s observation of vehicle speed, aligning Ohio law with that of several other states that already have bought into the notion that visual speed estimation is a skill rather than guesswork.

Need a radar or laser reading to judge how fast a car is going? Nope. The officer’s visual estimate is good enough despite a paucity of evidence that human beings can, with consistency, gauge accurately how fast a vehicle is going under a variety of weather, road, and traffic conditions by simply watching it from a distance. A few hours of “training” and a certificate is all an officer needs to be considered a reliable practitioner in the art of ascertaining the travel speed of a car by observation.

Much has been, and will continue to be, written about the Ohio ruling. More importantly, we hope it raises the consciousness of the public that speeding convictions in many states are obtained by relying on testimony which is based on a method not supported by scientific study.

The NMA has been flooded with email traffic expressing alarm and concern about the implications of courts giving judicial notice to what is, at best, a questionable method of determining how fast a vehicle is going. One concerned Ohio citizen put into words what most of us are thinking. He sent the following letter to his state representative and senator:

On June 2nd, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a person can be convicted of speeding merely by a police officer’s visual estimate of speed.

This is an incredible blow to fairness. How can an innocent driver defend himself against a mistaken officer who can deem you guilty just by his visual guess? The officer will always be right, and you are guilty just “because I said so.”

I realize that an officer can claim that is he “trained” to make an accurate visual guess. Common sense tells us this is absurd. Just imagine all the variables that can skew that guess from day to day.

Police officers are only human; we must hold them to a higher standard than this.

We are in an economy where towns, counties, and states are scrambling to meet budgets and make ends meet.

We are seeing revenue-hungry Ohio towns set up more speed traps and allow the deployment of privately owned and operated automated ticket cameras. Such petty infractions as not having a vehicle’s headlights illuminated whenever its windshield wipers are on can result in a fine of up to $150 in the state.

The general public is becoming increasingly aware that “traffic enforcement” is now driven far more by the desire for revenue than for the purpose of public safety.

This is a slippery slope. The average law-abiding citizen, who once respected those who enforce traffic safety, now mistrust them, and see only an ambush for the purpose of fleecing the ensnared victim.

I must assume the recent Supreme Court ruling was simply a clarification of existing state law. If so, the law is wrong and unjust, and should be changed.

More people should speak out against the Ohio ruling because it gives credence to an unproven and highly questionable method of estimating vehicle speed, a method that the outcome of many speeding verdicts will unfortunately rely upon.

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