I’ve had several questions lately about driving slowly, so I took some time this weekend to add a section to my paper on traffic stops on the subject. The new section appears below as today’s blog post, and the complete updated paper is available here.
Driving substantially under the posted speed limit is not itself unlawful. In fact, it is sometimes required by G.S. 20-141(a), which states that “[n]o person shall drive a vehicle on a highway or in a public vehicular area at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing.” On the other hand, in some circumstances, driving slowly may constitute obstruction of traffic under G.S. 20-141(h) (“No person shall operate a motor vehicle on the highway at such a slow speed as to impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.”). Furthermore, the fact that a driver is proceeding unusually slowly may contribute to reasonable suspicion that the driver is impaired. See, e.g., State v. Bonds, 139 N.C. App. 627 (2000) (driver’s blank look, slow speed, and the fact that he had his window down in cold weather provided reasonable suspicion; opinion quotes NHTSA regarding the connection between slow speeds, blank looks, and DWI); State v. Aubin, 100 N.C. App. 628 (1990) (fact that defendant slowed to 45 mph on I-95 and weaved within his lane supported reasonable suspicion of DWI); State v. Jones, 96 N.C. App. 389 (1989) (although the defendant did not commit a traffic infraction, “his driving 20 miles per hour below the speed limit and weaving within his lane were actions sufficient to raise a suspicion of an impaired driver in a reasonable and experienced [officer’s] mind”).
Whether slow speed alone is sufficient to provide reasonable suspicion of impairment is not completely settled in North Carolina. The state supreme court seemed to suggest that it might be in State v. Styles, 362 N.C. 412 (2008) (“For instance, law enforcement may observe certain facts that would, in the totality of the circumstances, lead a reasonable officer to believe a driver is impaired, such as weaving within the lane of travel or driving significantly slower than the speed limit.”), but the court of appeals stated that it is not in an unpublished decision, State v. Brown, 2010 WL 3860440 (N.C. Ct. App. Oct. 5, 2010) (unpublished) (stating that traveling 10 m.p.h. below the speed limit is not alone enough to create reasonable suspicion, but finding reasonable suspicion based on speed, weaving, and the late hour). The weight of authority in other states is that it is not. See, e.g., State v. Bacher, 867 N.E.2d 864 (Ohio Ct. App. 1 Dist. 2007) (holding that “slow travel alone [in that case, 23 m.p.h. below the speed limit on the highway] does not create a reasonable suspicion,” and collecting cases from across the country).
It is also unclear just how slowly a driver must be travelling in order to raise suspicions. Of course, driving a few miles per hour under the posted limit is not suspicious. State v. Canty, __ N.C. App. __, 736 S.E.2d 532 (2012) (fact that vehicle slowed to 59/65 upon seeing officers did not provide reasonable suspicion). Ten miles per hour under the limit, however, may be enough to contribute to suspicion. State v. Brown, supra (finding reasonable suspicion where defendant was driving 10 m.p.h. under the speed limit and weaving within lane); State v. Bradshaw, 2009 WL 2369281 (N.C. Ct. App. Aug. 4, 2009) (unpublished) (late hour, driving 10 m.p.h. below the limit, and abrupt turns provided reasonable suspicion). Certainly, the more sustained and the more pronounced the slow driving, the greater the suspicion.