You're a careful driver and always travel at or below the speed limit, so you're shocked when you're pulled over on the freeway during your commute home.
The officer takes your registration and license, spends 15 minutes on his squad car radio making sure you're not an escaped serial killer, and then brings you back your prize: a traffic ticket with "Below minimum speed" circled as your offense.
Wait a second. You can get pulled over for driving slowly?
That's right. Every state has a law on the books that says something along the lines of: "A person shall not drive a motor vehicle at such a slow speed so as to impede or block the normal and reasonable forward movement of traffic."
But does anyone ever actually get pulled over and ticketed? Absolutely -- and the ticket counts the same as any other violation against your driver's license and car insurance.
Making matters worse, the laws relating to slow driving and road safety can differ from state to state.
Some states specify a minimum speed limit for highway driving. In Florida, that minimum speed is 40 mph on highways with at least four lanes; Michigan's minimum speed limit on freeways is 55 mph. Iowa's law says that a vehicle that can't attain and maintain a speed of 40 mph can't go on the Interstate system.
Additionally, there are laws in most states that require a driver going slower than typical traffic flow to occupy the farthest right lane to allow other drivers to pass.
Go with the flow to be safe and avoid tickets
A couple of decades ago, Jim Gussler was pulled over while driving 60 mph in a 55-mph zone on Interstate 5 in California.
"Traffic was crazy and whizzing by me," he says. "It was the first time I'd been to California and the first time I'd encountered traffic like that."
He thought the officer was going to issue a ticket for driving 5 mph over the limit.
"Nope," Gussler says. "He politely explained that I was impeding traffic and needed to match the flow of traffic. He also explained that a slower vehicle was more dangerous than a speeding vehicle."
Gussler got off with a warning, but there's at least some research out there that supports that officer's claim.
In 1964, a U.S. government researcher named David Solomon wrote a paper on the subject of speed and crashes. He found that those drivers going the median speed of all traffic -- not necessarily the speed limit -- had the lowest risk of collision. He also found that the crash risk increases more sharply at speeds below the average traffic flow than above. (See a bit more recent research at "Why speed limits are rising.")
"What that indicates is that law enforcement should pay at least as much attention to slow drivers as it does drivers going a few miles per hour over the speed limit," says Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association.
Points is points, at least as far as tickets go
Whether or not a slow vehicle is more dangerous than a speeding one is a point of contention, but obstructing traffic by driving slowly is against the law.
In New York, a ticket for driving at a slow speed carries a 2-point traffic infraction on the driver's record. The insurer looks at it just like any other 2-point infraction. But Cassandra Anderson, director of communications for the New York Insurance Association, says it is rare to hear of someone receiving a ticket for driving under the speed limit.
"We are under the impression that many more tickets are written for speeding than for slow driving in New York," she says.
That's definitely the case in Texas, as it probably is in every state.
In 2010, Texas Highway Patrol troopers wrote 23 tickets or warnings for "speed under minimum." Those 23 are out of a total 883,303 tickets that troopers wrote for various offenses. They also wrote 9,384 tickets for "unsafe speed," which means the driver was going below the speed limit but too fast for current conditions.
Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, says it's important for drivers to remember that you can drive the speed limit or under and still be driving unsafely, "especially in heavy traffic or when there is heavy rainfall, fog or other weather conditions that would really call for slowing down dramatically."
Also important to note is that a ticket for driving slowly isn't any different from a speeding ticket in how it impacts your car insurance rates.
"It's understood if an officer issued a ticket and the driver was subsequently convicted, that all convictions for moving violations must be treated equally," says Carole Walker, executive director for the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.