Can You Trick an Automated Speed Trap Into Ticketing Itself?

Imagine you are cruising along, pushing the limits of the law a bit on a safe road. You don’t see a single police officer and think you’re in the clear, then you blow by an automated speed trap ticketing cars. The machine takes a picture of you and sends you your ticket. It’s a frustrating situation and makes the urban legend of tricksters forcing a speed trap to ticket itself all the more appealing.

Did Australian pranksters pull one over on the police?

There’s a funny story that makes the rounds every few years. The way the tale goes, an Australian police officer drives an automated speed trap van into a small town and sets up shop. But the locals decide to make a stand.

The back of a London police officers, the words Metropolitan Police visible on his bright green jacket.
Police officer | Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

RELATED: Is It Illegal for Police To Set Speed Traps?

For non-Australian readers: Automated speed traps are so common down under that about 11% of Australian citizens get a speeding ticket every year.

The way the story goes, three local youths approach the automated speed trap van. They chat up the operator, asking how far he traveled and how many tickets his automated speed trap generates most days. During their conversation, a fourth friend crawls up to the vehicle and steals its license plate. Once he’s done, they excuse themselves and hurry home.

Once safely home, the pranksters attach the van’s license plate to one of their cars. Then they set out on a spirited drive.

When they drive by the speed trap van it automatically clocks them speeding. Because it only allows a 2 mph margin of error, it generates a ticket and sends it off. The tricksters are thrilled by this and loop back by the van 16 times. Each time it sends a speeding ticket to its own police force.

Is stealing a speed trap van’s license plate even possible?

The fact-checkers at Snopes followed up on the speed trap prankster story. The publication found that it would conceivably be completely possible to steal the license plate off a speed trap van and affix it to your own vehicle. If you sped by, it would absolutely photograph its own plate and try to generate a ticket.

A police van parked by the roadside, its window up to photograph speeding motorists.
Police van | Peter Titmuss/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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That said, it is not likely the police would actually mail a ticket to themselves. When they found they had ticketed a government license plate 17 times, a human officer would likely investigate further. Of course they would have a series of photographs of the pranksters driving a car by the speed trap. In addition, they would have they might have testimony from the hoodwinked officer.

If youths in Australia–or anywhere else–pulled such a trick the police would likely investigate. The biggest hole in the speed trap story is that there is no record of any such investigation in any Australian newspaper.

Is the speed trap duping story an urban legend?

Snopes hunted down the original source of the story and found it emerged in competing email chains. It seems some Australians liked to claim that the tricksters were from Australia, while some New Zealanders claimed they were Kiwis.

A white car whizzing down a country road at high speed appears as a blur in front of yellow flowers.
Speeding car | Matt Cardy via Getty Images

RELATED: Do Custom License Plates Attract Police?

Overall, the story of tricksters pulling a prank on a speed trap is probably an urban legend. But next time a camera or other automated speed trap gives us a ticket, we’ll certainly be cheering for the fictional pranksters who hoodwinked the machine.

Next, find out which states in the U.S. allow speed traps with unmarked police cars.

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