There are a million and one excuses that you can come up with to try to avoid a speeding ticket. You can say you are late to pick up your child at school or that you are sick to your stomach and need to find a bathroom fast.
Or that you had a run-in with a beefy, mean-looking trucker at a rest stop and you are trying put as many miles between him and you as you can. And if that means putting the pedal to the metal for 10 straight minutes on the freeway, so be it.
But few of your excuses will match the impact that a doctor can bring to bear: “I am a physician and I’m on the way to the hospital to save a patient’s life.”
Or so it would seem. In fact, the law offers little protection to physicians in emergency situations. Police can and do lower the boom on doctors caught speeding and running red lights, even in the direst circumstances.
It’s a thorny issue, doctors and police say. On one hand, a headlong rush to the hospital could lead to injuries or even death if the doctor causes an accident. On the other, would you want your mom to wait for a physician scrupulously observing the speed limit or sitting at a red light at 3 a.m.?
One case in Toronto recently lit up the Canadian blogosphere. Police stopped cardiologist Michael Kutryk on his way to treat a heart attack victim and held him up for 10 minutes, issuing him a $300 ticket for doing 46 mph in a 25 mph zone. The patient survived — no thanks to the Toronto police department, critics noted.
Legal experts say physicians shouldn’t count on different treatment in the U.S. But they do make the distinction between driving dangerously and breaking the speed limit.
In the rarest of instances, speeding may be defensible in court if the alleged “emergency” situation holds up under close scrutiny, said Lawrence Dubin, a law professor at University of Detroit Mercy.
The physicians’ argument, known as the “necessity” defense, may be wearing thin, however. “Every doctor who goes to court tries to use that defense, and I am not certain that the judges aren’t getting sick of it,” said Geoffrey Nathan, a Boston-based attorney who handles traffic violations.
His criminal practice has won a number of cases involving doctors –including one where a physician was accused of doing 84 mph in a 65 zone on the Massachusetts Turnpike. He is quick to point out there is no single “cookie cutter” approach to winning these cases.
“Generally, with physicians, we are trying to elicit a sympathy factor,” he said.
Doctors traveling to a medical emergency are in an uncertain situation. They aren’t sure about their patient’s status, and their training tells them that time is of the essence. Yet they know that they could send more people to the hospital if they cause an accident on the way.
Hospitals recognize that doctors need to be available quickly in an emergency — without putting 95-mph commutes into their job descriptions. Depending on the medical specialty, many hospitals put a certain number of physicians “on call” for emergencies every day and insist they be available in as little as 15 minutes. Physicians frequently spend 24 hours on site to meet that requirement.
Still, physicians on site can handle not all emergencies. One Canadian doctor who spoke in Dr. Kutryk’s defense admitted to cautiously crawling through red lights in an emergency. Dr. Mary-Anne Purtill, a trauma surgeon at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., is sympathetic to that position. After all, there are times when many stretches of road or intersections are totally deserted.
But she has little patience for the notion that doctors should be allowed to drive recklessly.
“I never drive dangerously,” she said. “We don’t have the training that police and ambulance drivers have. After a being a trauma surgeon for this long, the last thing I want to do is cause an accident and injure someone on the way to the hospital.”
Dr. Sydney Vail, a trauma specialist at the Maricopa Medical Center in Arizona, has a simple standard: A physician should get to the hospital as quickly as possible “within the law.”
“You don’t need to risk life and limb,” Vail said. “Yes, getting there in an expedited way is good and probably appropriate, but you have to ask yourself the question: Am I doing it for the right reasons and can I be safe doing it?”
In some cases, physicians may feel they are indispensable, and that very attitude can propel them down the highway at breakneck speeds. “It goes back to self-worth and ego,” Vail said. “People may feel that they are the only person that can manage the situation.”
During a traffic stop, however, a police officer isn’t likely to give much weight to that argument, said David Carter, a former patrolman and now a professor at Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice.
“For traffic offenses, your intent or reason for speeding is actually irrelevant. It’s a matter of law — did you do it or not?” he said, noting that intent does matter in more serious criminal matters.
Police officers have some leeway: They can either issue the citation or a warning not to speed any more. “The problem with telling the physician to go ahead and speed is that the officer would bear liability if the physician gets into an accident further down the road,” Carter said.
“In a couple cases, when I was in that situation, I escorted the doctor to the hospital,” he said. “But I wasn’t running red lights. I was facilitating the arrival at the hospital, but doing it within the parameters of the law.”
Law professor Dubin says the distinction between speeding and driving recklessly may carry some weight when physicians feel they have no choice but to speed.
“I do think that if a doctor is cited for speeding, as opposed to driving recklessly, the defense of necessity could apply in narrow sets of circumstances,” he said. Doctors would have to show the patient risked physical harm or death at that point or in the near future, and that only they could reduce those risks.
Experts agree a little common sense on the part of doctors and flexibility on the part of the police may be the best way to protect the interest of the person too easily forgotten in the debate: the patient waiting for a doctor to arrive as quickly as possible — and in one piece.