Wise Drive: Why did I get a ticket in a no-inury accident even though no police came?

Q: I was in a no injury accident on I-5. Traffic came to an abrupt stop and I was rear-ended. Damage to the other car was extensive and needed to be towed. We both called his insurance company but no police were called. I waited with him for a tow truck for 20 minutes and then left to work. I received a ticket in the mail for improper lane usage. I contested it and have court next month, but I shouldn’t have got this ticket. Why did the police send me this? They were not called to the scene.

A: In the 2001 heist movie “Ocean’s 11,” Terry Benedict owns a casino (or three actually) and they’re about to be robbed by Danny Ocean and his 10 buddies. Disregarding that the protagonist in this story, Danny, is likely guilty of multiple felonies while Terry, the purported villain, is only guilty of dating Danny’s ex-wife, the success of the movie hinges on incomplete information.

Confident in his casino security, Terry believes he’s not vulnerable to a robbery, but that’s because he doesn’t know the whole story.

I wouldn’t recommend pushing this analogy too far, but when I read your question it felt like there was a piece of information missing. Not because you intentionally left it out, but because like Terry Benedict, it wasn’t available to you.

To help fill in the gaps, I sent a message to a local state trooper to ask what might have happened behind the scene. I’ll come back to him in a bit.

While I was waiting for his call, I reviewed the law that authorizes a law enforcement officer to issue a traffic infraction. As you can imagine, police can’t just hand out infractions like handbills on the Las Vegas strip. The law limits it to five scenarios:

  • When the infraction is committed in the officer’s presence.
  • Acting on behalf of another officer who observed the infraction.
  • While investigating a collision.
  • When the infraction is detected by an automated traffic safety camera (red light and speed cameras).
  • When the infraction is detected by an automated school bus safety camera.

The common thread in all five of these is evidence.

That evidence may come from the officer’s own observation, the observation of a colleague, the physical evidence and witness statements at the scene of a crash or evidence recorded on a safety camera. Without gathering evidence, an officer can’t issue an infraction.

Given what you’ve described, it seems like you shouldn’t have received a ticket in the mail.

There was no officer present to witness the collision, neither you nor the other party called to have the collision investigated and there are no automated traffic safety cameras on I-5 to record the crash.

However …

I got a call back from the state trooper and explained your situation. He agreed that it would be strange to send a ticket in the mail without investigating a collision, but he had a pretty good guess as to what happened.

If you (and by you I mean anybody) get in a crash on I-5 in heavy traffic and don’t call 911, that doesn’t mean nobody called 911. When there are multiple witnesses to a crash and every witness has a device to quickly report it, a call to law enforcement is almost inevitable. Most likely, between the time you left for work and the tow truck hooked up the damaged vehicle, a state trooper arrived. Based on what the trooper observed and what the other driver described, you were issued an infraction.

Though you may not agree with the trooper’s decision (and it sounds like you’re taking your opportunity to present your side in court), this is the most likely explanation for your ticket.

On the bright side, going to court pales compared to Terry Benedict’s casinos losing $160 million. On the down side, that was fiction and this is real life.

Doug Dahl is a Target Zero Manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and a self-confessed traffic safety nerd.