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Burden of Proof

Survive Your Drive: Laws of the Road

Aired August 25, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Survive your drive, on the road and in the courtroom. Avoiding the potholes of traffic law can save your life and protect you legally.


TILLIE TOOTER, ACCIDENT VICTIM: Nobody should ever drive without a seatbelt, which saved my life.

ROSE MCMURRAY, NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMINISTRATION: It is the number-one preventative measure you can take to save yourself from serious injury or death.

CHUCK HURLEY, NATIONAL SAFETY COUNCIL: It just has to be a clear message of "click it or ticket." And that message has proven effective in a number of states. That is what it takes to move belt use numbers.


ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta van Susteren

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

Throughout the morning, CNN's special coverage has focused on "Surviving Your Drive." With increased traffic in major cities across the nation, dangerous highways and deadly accidents are becoming alarmingly common. Understanding the laws of the road can help you avoid some of those dangers behind the wheel and in the courtroom.

Joining us today are insurance law professor Joseph Carabillo, Chief Edward Flynn of the Arlington County Police Department, and former Maryland Circuit Court Judge Vincent Femia. In the back, Srilekha Sarkardas (ph), Karen Kieffer (ph), and Sallie Willis (ph).

I want to go right to you, chief. What is the most common type of violations that you see on the road? and how do you choose who gets the ticket and who doesn't?

CHIEF EDWARD A. FLYNN, ARLINGTON COUNTY POLICE: Well, the most common violation we have to encounter is speeding. Speeding takes place both on our highways, on our major commercial artery routes, as well as in neighborhoods. In a place like Arlington, the biggest single complaint we get from our residents is cut through traffic, people who are going 35 and 45 miles an hour in 25- and 30-mile-an- hour zones. Obviously, that reduces their reactions time for kids darting out into traffic, has a negative effect on the quality of life, and increases the possibility of accidents.

COSSACK: Now, not all people get tickets that commit violations. How is it that you make that choice? which are the ones that get the tickets, and which are the ones that perhaps don't?

FLYNN: Well, obviously, you know, you want your officers to try to use intelligent discretion enforcing traffic laws. At the same time, we have to open to citizen complaints. So, for example, on a neighborhood street where there are complaints about speedings, we try to give some reasonable tolerance of say five miles or so on a neighborhood street. So if somebody is doing 27 in a 25, we don't want to hit them with a citation, but if they are doing 35, even though 35 doesn't sound fast for a highway, 35 is very fast for a neighborhood street. In those situations, we issue a citation.

Recently, what we've been experimenting with is giving our radar sets to private citizens, not so much that they do any enforcement action, but just mere fact of their recording the speeds on their streets seems to get the attention of the motorists to whom we send letters, saying, you know, someone saw your car speeding.

But it also kind of empowers local resident who are very concerned about the effect of speeding on their lives and the safety of the kids.

COSSACK: Chief, what about this? I have often noticed that you are on the highway, the highway may be 55 miles per hour, perhaps even 60 in some places, but nobody is doing 55, no one is even doing 60. The flow of traffic is 65, 70 miles an hour, sometimes the people in the left lane are doing 75, and the people in the right lane are doing 65 or 70. Everyone is breaking the speeding law. How do you decide there who is the violator?

FLYNN: Well, you know, it is really tough when you are doing highway patrols. We have several highways in Arlington that we patrol with the state troopers, and it is tough.

I mean, think about it, you know, the speed limit nationally is 55 to 65 miles an hour, yet we are making cars with top speeds of 125 miles an hour. We are making Vipers and charging $40,000 for them. I mean, we are sending dual messages about where speed fits in our society.

When it comes to highway patrol enforcement, you are trying to make sure that you reinforcing safe driving behaviors. If everybody is going 75 in a 65, obviously you are looking for the person going 95. Because, quite frankly, no matter how fast people are going, there are people that are well outside the norms that are truly a menace to everyone. And those are the ones that are going to come to our attention first. COSSACK: All right, Judge Femia, in your courtroom, people come in and they have been given citations, some of them have been 35 in a 25, as we heard the chief describe, and others that were doing faster on the highway. When you are sitting, as a traffic judge, what are the thoughts that go through your mind in determining fines, and in determining how you treat the person?

VINCENT FEMIA, FMR. CIRCUIT COURT JUDGE, PRINCE GEORGES CO., MD.: No, the first thought that comes to mind is there but for the grace of God go I because I, quite frankly, am just like anybody else out on that highway. The majority of the violations, traffic violations, that we see are a product of intention, a product of being dumb, quite frankly. And I am as culpable as anybody of that.

You drive along and you are not thinking about what you should be thinking about. I find, as I said to Joe earlier, the older you get, the more you are inclined to do that, find yourself thinking about things that maybe are very important to you, but not nearly as important as pushing a ton and a half of steel down the highway at 60 miles an hour.

I had the experience two weeks ago of for two weeks trying a murder trial in another county, which required me to commute 98 miles round trip each day on a major four-lane highway, speed limit 55, and quite frankly, as a judge trial, I must admit to you that I found myself thinking quite often about what witnesses had said and where this case was going.

COSSACK: So judge, if I came in front of you and I said: You know, judge, I hate to admit this to you, but I had a lot of things on my mind that morning I perhaps wasn't paying much attention, but I don't think I was doing too badly, maybe 10 miles over the speed limit, but I was thinking about a lot of things I had to do at work. Would you say, well, then, go and leave Cossack and sin no more. I am not going to find you guilty.

FEMIA: I may be inclined to drop it down to a one point violation. I mean, if you come in and say: Look, judge, I'm not looking for justice, I am looking mercy, I am willing to cut you some slack the first time around, Of course, if you make a habit of it, shame on you, you got to carry the heat.

COSSACK: Chief, let me ask you about two modern things that we seem to be talking about. One is what you find the impact of people who are not paying attention to their driving because their cell phones, they are talking on their cell phone, or perhaps tuning the radio, or perhaps doing something that causes them not to pay attention to what they are doing, and what about road rage?

FLYNN: Well, I mean, there is two sets of factors there. People are spending a lot of time in their cars now. I was on a highway not long ago, and I looked to my left, and there was a young woman with her elbows stuck in her steering wheel and she was flossing her teeth, all right? So we see a lot of behaviors that are aspects of inattention that certainly are not necessarily road rage, but qualify as road stupidity, and they cause a real problem for us. COSSACK: Is that something new that is within the last four or five years, this idea of perhaps people not paying as much attention.

FLYNN: Well, we have many things now that are in the car to make their lives convenient so that people can work close to 24 hours a day. So between cell phones and cell faxes and in-car computers, and God knows what else, we are creating an awful lot of opportunities for people to pay attention to things other than their driving.

I think road rage is a different phenomenon. There we've got two sets of issues. One is driving behaviors that are related to road rage, such as following too closely, excessive speed, lane changes; and the other is the phenomenon having to do with people who have extraordinary trouble with anger management. We have got some people out there, and I bet if you looked at the data, the people that we nail for true road rage are probably the same people showing up in our domestic violence statistics and in other crime statistics as well, people with serious impulse control and anger issues.

And even though the judge is kind enough to say that, you know, people who get to a certain age, so to speak, are not paying so much attention, you know, the ages we are worried about are 25 to 29, maybe a little younger, maybe a little older. It is that combination of testosterone and high-powered motor vehicles that seem to get us in a lot of trouble with road rage incidents.

COSSACK: OK, let's take a break. Up next, eventually, virtually every driver finds themselves in some sort of car accident. Find out what your rights are as a citizen and insurance policy holder, when we come back.


On Thursday, a Detroit, Michigan judge denied a motion to release Dr. Jack Kevorkian on bond. Lawyers for Kevorkian, 72, requested his release because they said his health is deteriorating.



GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: you can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log on to We now provide a live video feed, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time.

If you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show and even join our chat room.

COSSACK: With increased traffic and danger on our roads, auto accidents are becoming more common in our nation. But what you know about the law can help protect you legally if you're behind the wheel in a fender-bender.

Joe, let's talk about what kind of insurance every driver should have, and every driver needs?

JOSEPH CARABILLO, INSURANCE LAW PROFESSOR: Well, every driver should review their policy every year, it's important for a lot of reasons, because your needs change. They should have collision coverage to protect the vehicle, so the vehicle can be repaired, and the amount of the deductible is very important, because by modifying the deductible, you can save significant money. They should also watch their liability coverages, and there is really three forms of liability coverage.

One, liability to a third person if you are unfortunate enough to be negative and have an accident and you are sued, you want to protect yourself and your family, and you assets, by having a liability coverage: 100-300,000 is considered the norm. State limits are very low.

People should look for higher limits, and they should look for what they call excess liability policies. These are policies that are relatively low cost, but they fit on top of your auto coverage. They can up to a million dollars in coverage, and again, it is important if you are protecting a family, children going to college and other things.

Accidents happen on the roads, we've heard about inattention, a very major factor. They will happen. If you are unfortunate enough to be the one at fault, you want that protection, and you want to look at your uninsured and underinsured motorists coverages. There are people out thee without insurance, some driving with revoked licenses. During an accident with them, there is very often no way to recover. So if you are injured...

COSSACK: So if you have your own uninsured motorist that you pay for, that gives you protection against something like that happening.


COSSACK: All of us have had this situation where there has been a minor accident, a fender bender, two parties get out of the car, and one party says to the other party, this is usually me saying it: Listen, we don't have to talk to our insurance companies, perhaps we can just do this between ourselves. Is that a good idea or not such a good idea?

CARABILLO: If there's any risk of a liability claim being filed against you, it is not a good idea.

COSSACK: What about the story, gee, I have this relatively minor accident, I am going to tell my insurance company, they are going to raise my rates.

CARABILLO: If you are a repeat person who has multiple accidents, that's very likely. Most companies will not take any action, especially if you have been with them a few years on a single accident, even if you are at fault. But if you have two or three accidents that are your fault within a three-year period, in some states, that is a safe-haven for a termination of the policy. But that single accident, which is what most of us encounter, should not be an issue. You may get the company asking you about it, you may get questions, but you are much better off reporting it, especially if are exposed to liability.

On a practical level, we all do it, if we have a minor accident and there's no damage to the vehicle, nobody is hurt, but the first thing I would say is get yourself to a safe place. Don't get out of the car in traffic to look at it, even in a minor fender-bender if the cars are movable.

I don't know if the chief would agree with me, get them off the road in a safe place so there's not worse damage and worse injury.

COSSACK: That is exactly what I want to talk to the chief about.

Chief, we've all been involved in these kind of minor accidents where the cars are movable, and there seems to be this feeling of, I can't do anything, I can't move the car, I can't do anything, I have to call the police, and wait for the police, and guess what, traffic lines up for miles and miles, and there's great road disturbance, and perhaps even that road rage we were talking about. What should you do in a situation like that?

FLYNN: Well, I think most people want to do the right thing, and most people don't get in very many car accidents, so obviously they treat the car accident like a crime scene.

Now, it is ironic that they stand there, and they don't want to move the cars, and they don't want to change anything, and traffic backs up for five miles. The police officer gets there, and the first words out of his or her mouth are: Move the cars to the side of the road.

So, you are right. You know, I think the key is, if there isn't any personal injury, if the property damage is such that it doesn't prevent the cars from being moved, by all means, get on with your day, move to the side of the road, and exchange information. Most states, for example, require a police record if there is $1,000 worth of damage. Well, certainly, do that report.

The fact of the matter is, with these new high-performance cars with their fiberglass bodies, you can have $1,000 damage very easily. I think most people want to get on with their day.

So if you are in a situation in which you don't feel unsafe, you know, you don't feel particularly threatened by the passing traffic, the other motorists has credential, wants to get on with their day, certainly by all means exchange your information and file an appropriate report later on.

COSSACK: Joe, whenever I unfortunately comes nose-to-nose with a traffic officer, it's usually not the fine I am thinking about, it is the insurance I am thinking about, the idea of getting extra points. What kind of effect does that have, if you get a few traffic tickets? what does that have on your insurance? CARABILLO: Well, if you get a few traffic tickets, it is going to have an effect. The companies generally look at two factors: the severity of the ticket, the incident; the worst incident is obviously DUI.

COSSACK: Driving under the influence of alcohol.

CARABILLO: Driving under the influence, and that may often lead to a termination of the policy. There is no duty to report traffic violations to your insurance company. I don't know of any company that requires it, but they ask the question when they renew your credit every six months.

If you have a single violation, again, very unlikely. If it is a reckless driving violation with an accident, very likely you will be upgraded, if not more seriously.

But the average person, we get speeding tickets, the insurers know this. We run red lights, we absent-mindedly turn right where we are not supposed to turn right on a red light. If it is an isolated incidence, but if it two or three in a three-year period, and that is the key: if they are frequent.

COSSACK: You say there's no requirement to report it to an insurance company. So what happens if you, when they renew your policy, and they say: Have you had any tickets in the last six months? And you say: No, but you really had maybe one or two, and you say no on that insurance application. What happens then?

CARABILLO: That's different. That renewal notice is offer to contract. And not to get too technical, when you answer that, if you misrepresent the facts, the company may have the right to rescind the policy, depending if the misrepresentation is material. If you forget you passed a stop sign, unlikely; but if you had a reckless driving citation and a speeding citation and maybe a third citation and you failed to mention it, that's going to be material to the risk, and that is going to change the underwriting in almost every state that is ground for up rating, raising the rates, or termination, cancellation or non-renewal.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. Up next, do not be intimidated when your local law enforcement official taps on your window. They're looking out for your best interests. We are going to hear this personally from one of our panelists who just on the way over to visit us had a little confrontation with a traffic officer. Judge Femia, stay with us.


Q: What did people surveyed by AAA attribute as the greatest road danger?

A: Aggressive drivers.



COSSACK: It's one of the first tips from our drivers ed instructors: drive defensively. Being cautious and obeying the law is also what your local law enforcement officer wants. But how concerned should you be when you see those blue lights flashing in your rearview mirror?

I have here what we're going to call defendant's exhibit A, which seems to be a moving violation to Judge Femia.

Judge, you -- if I might ask. You got this on the way over to join us today.

FEMIA: Less than an hour and a -- less than an hour ago, actually.

COSSACK: Now, Judge, the allegation is 70 in a 50.

FEMIA: That's quite correct. I have no idea because I was busy thinking about how I was going to tell people to pay attention while they're driving on this show.

COSSACK: Now, Judge, did you try and say anything to the traffic officer when you got the ticket?

FEMIA: Good morning, I have no idea what I was doing, but I'm sure it's kind of stupid. You haven't got a virgin, just hand me the ticket. He doesn't know I'm a judge, and I'm certainly not telling him.

COSSACK: Chief, you must have heard a million reasons about why someone shouldn't get a ticket when you were issuing traffic citations. Can you remember some of them? And did any of them work? And is there any good ones you can tell us?

FLYNN: Let me tell you one thing: If there's a good place to start if you're stopped by a traffic officer, number one, before you go for your drive, remove the "bad cop, no doughnut" sticker from the back of your car. That's a good start. Secondly, when the officer approaches the car, don't ask him why isn't he out there catching murderers and drug dealers instead of harassing honest citizens like you. Secondarily, don't remind him that you pay his salary. And third of all, don't argue with him about it in the street. Chances are, if you say, no, I didn't go through that red light, well, the only option of the officer is, well, I'm afraid you did and we can argue about this in court.

If you do have a story, share it, you know, sometimes it's going to work. If you get stopped by a regular patrol officer who's not primarily oriented towards traffic enforcement, there's a good chance he or she is on their way to something else. They're stopping you because you did something that brought you to their attention. But if your paperwork's in order and your inspection is valid and you were not doing something egregious, there's a good chance that if you just act politely and say, gees, I don't know what I was thinking of, shouldn't have done this, you got me, you may not, in fact, get the citation.

It's a little different on a highway if they're operating a specific, selective enforcement trying to reduce, you know, speeding at a specific location. That kind of thing, if you're caught in the net, you're probably going to get the ticket. But for a lot of the garden variety infractions on city streets, you've got a fighting chance of talking your way out. But get rid of that sticker.

COSSACK: All right, now, Judge Femia, I've now come into your courtroom and I was unsuccessful in talking my way out of that ticket on the street, so I'm in and I'm looking for anything I can get. I'm looking for mercy, I'm looking for not guilty, I'm looking for whatever the court can do for me. How do I go about speaking with you?

FEMIA: Well, most people -- when I sat in traffic court, most people would step up and say -- you'd say, how do you plead, guilty or not guilty? They'd say, I'm guilty but I'd like to explain. Certainly, please do. A person is telling you, look, I did it but I'd like to tell you why I did it. I mean, you'd listen. And, you know, as the chief points out, if people are courteous -- I'm going to tell you, courtesy is the key to this whole operation, both with the officers, with the judges, and with everybody else involved -- being courteous, being polite.

That doesn't mean there's not some people down -- out there who think they are the saviors of the world and they don't want to hear anything. There are. But in the main, hey, judges, police officers, prosecutors, we're involved in a very contentious world, and you step up and act like, you know, a human being who's had a problem, I'm more inclined to help you than if you step up in front of me with your jaw set to tell me how really bad you think of me. Be nice, it helps.

COSSACK: Chief, are traffic officers concerned when they stop someone walking up to that car. You know, there's always that fear of who's in there, is there a weapon in that car? Is that going through a police officer's mind? And what should a driver do to try and eliminate that or take that out of the mix?

FLYNN: Well, that's a very important point, particularly depending upon the time of day and the location. Officers don't know who you are. You may know you're an innocent citizen...


FLYNN: ... but they don't until they've had some interaction with you.


FLYNN: So they're going to approach you cautiously, both in terms of trying to be -- avoid being hit by a car, and also in terms of a possible threat you may offer. So don't take it personally if the officer's first approach is kind of officious and kind of impersonal and kind of tactical. That's the way we train them, and we want them to go home that night. Also remember, when you do get stopped for that traffic violation, and if you do get a ticket, think of all the ones you didn't get.

COSSACK: Should -- is it better if you put your hands on the steering wheel when the police officer comes up so the officer can see your hands?

FLYNN: I think that's helpful. I mean, that's helpful, yes, exactly. Don't jump out of the car, don't suddenly reach for your glove box.


FLYNN: A lot of people go to the glove box for their insurance information. Just sit tight, keep your hands in a place where they can be seen, and allow the officer to start asking the questions.

COSSACK: All right, that's all the time we have for today. What great sports we had on our show. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Monday on BURDEN OF PROOF, do privileged status and family connections allow you to skirt the law? Mickey Sherman, the attorney for Michael Skakel, will join us to discuss the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley in Greenwich, Connecticut. That's Monday on another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



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