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Drive to Let Doctors Speed Hits Yellow Light

Medical group cites old law, but CHP says it's for emergencies only and in specific circumstances.

March 04, 2004|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Pulled over for speeding? Just tell them you're a doctor.

Citing a law established back in the days when physicians had to race past streetcars and Packards to make emergency house calls, the California Medical Assn. has told its members that they could speed legally as long as their cars displayed a sticker identifying them as doctors.

The group plans to print and sell big red stickers featuring the initials "M.D." and the identification number of a 1930s-era state law that allows doctors to speed to medical emergencies. The association, which represents about a third of doctors in the state, said it would sell the stickers to members for $10, and to nonmembers for $50.

But the head of the California Highway Patrol is not pleased.

D.O. "Spike" Helmick said he would personally ticket any doctor caught violating the state's driving laws -- red sticker or not. The association, he said, is misreading an old law that he believes should no longer be on the books.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 13, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Doctors' car stickers -- An article in the California section on March 4 incorrectly stated that the California Medical Assn. planned to charge members $10 for car stickers that identified them as doctors. In fact, the organization will charge nothing for the first sticker and $10 for each additional sticker. Nonmembers will pay $50, as stated in the article.

"We're not supporting this," Helmick said. "It's just a law that the California Legislature put on the books 70 years ago."

In its Feb. 26 newsletter, the medical association said the new stickers would exempt physicians "from most speeding laws" unless they were driving recklessly.

In an interview, CMA chief executive Jack Lewin said he figured that CHP officers would also be sympathetic to doctors who drove in carpool lanes or on the shoulder on their way to a medical emergency.

"We're trying to get physicians through traffic congestion to be able to take care of patients," Lewin said. The CHP, he said, supported the effort.

Not so, Helmick said. The existing law, he said, does not allow doctors to exceed the state's maximum speed, which is 65 mph in some places and 70 mph in others. It only allows them to go faster than the posted speed when it is lower than that -- mostly on city streets and rural roads -- and then only in medical emergencies.

Try to drive in the carpool lane with that sticker, or speed down routes reserved for emergency vehicles, "and I'll be the first one to throw them in jail," Helmick said.

He said he would prefer that the law be changed to force doctors to obey the speed limit everywhere.

"No one should be above the law," Helmick said. "Even a doctor who needs to get someplace in a hurry."

The CHP chief said he wanted to talk to Lewin, and asked a reporter for his phone number. "He's going to be my next call!" Helmick said.

A few minutes later, Lewin, a bit chastened, phoned the reporter back.

The association is still planning to sell the stickers, he said. But Lewin stressed that they would not give doctors the right to speed on freeways -- or drive in the carpool lane.

"I was pretty much under the impression that we were going to be able to go faster on freeways, but we're not," Lewin said. "And they told me [speeding to] the golf course was definitely out."

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