Norman Barr was nabbed going 68 in a 45-mph zone, and he's got a doozy of an excuse: He had to get his Significant Other to a restroom -- fast.

Guilty, $75 fine, all of it suspended.

Alireza Shahbaz was clocked at 72 in a 45 zone, and he's come to court armed with maps and measurements showing that it was a mere 1,500 feet from where he started to where he was pulled over, and his old Expedition has 140,000 miles on it, and there's just no way he could have reached that speed over such a short distance.

Except that a third of a mile is plenty enough to get going that fast. Guilty, $80 fine.

Jose Menjivar was trucking at more than 80 mph when he was stopped. "I don't think I was going that fast," he offers weakly.

Guilty, $150. And "slow down when you come to Virginia," Fairfax General District Court Judge Mark Simmons tells the Maryland resident. "Do all your speeding in Maryland."

Traffic Court is the ultimate expression of American turnstile justice. It's fast, funny and endlessly forgiving. It would all be a terrific show, except that people are getting slammed and sideswiped and much worse on our congested roads, and the folks who cause those long waits at body shops and in radiology departments are leaving court with punishments so light that it's no wonder they do it again.

Forget the cases that get dismissed because witnesses or the cop don't show -- those defendants win the lottery. But in the 195 minutes it took Judge Simmons to dispose of 91 cases the other day, the most striking symbol of a system that fails to take reckless driving seriously was the number of guilty parties I saw leaving court with big smiles on their faces.

Rocio Benavides got stopped for failing to yield to another car, showed police a fake ID and turned out never to have had a driver's license. She has only this to say: "I know it was wrong." Simmons fines her $3,575, but suspends all but $775 of it, and Benavides leaves chuckling.

Lots of folks have reason to smile: A mother of three who passed a stopped school bus gets a $60 fine -- and she turns out to be a teacher! Another mom is caught going 45 in a 25 and goes home with a $30 fine after explaining that she'd lost track of her speed because she was having a heated discussion with her daughter.

Traffic Court is an endless parade of excuses, mostly the kind of lame tales that so enrich the lives of high school teachers. "I felt my life was threatened if I stopped at the light." "It was a mechanical problem, I couldn't stop."

Or this from Dwayne Holmes, who was going 70 in a 55 zone. "I had, like, a college interview," he offers. "I applied to medical school, and I had an interview in Richmond, and I overslept, and I freaked -- like, this was my future." Guilty, $80 fine.

The best traffic judges deploy humor, derision, anger and rapidly escalating fines to keep the guff to a minimum. But nearly all judges loathe traffic duty, and the endless procession of ordinary infractions committed by people who simply do not care tends to wear down even the most dedicated jurists. Simmons is a good example: He pleads, cajoles, smirks, scoffs, sighs -- whatever looks like it might break through a particular defendant's aura of invincibility.

But when the law limits you to a $200 fine on many offenses, there's only so much a judge can do. The state's clear message is that these crimes are unimportant. (In the past year, 16 area residents have been killed by hit-and-run drivers. Prosecutors say they intend to get tough on these killers -- if they can find them. The District, for example, is oh-for-four in catching last year's hit-and-run drivers.)

The state can send a much tougher message. On drunken driving, it does. Fines suddenly jump into serious territory, measured in the thousands, not the tens. Jail time can be and is dispensed. Licenses are taken away on the spot. On this day, two men are jailed on DWI convictions.

But a man who rammed a woman's car in the rear and later tried to blame her is fined $20, and a man with a lengthy list of infractions pays $70 for driving 20 mph over the limit.

The overall impression that any defendant gets after spending a morning in Traffic Court is, hey, why not speed? It's barely more expensive than a parking ticket, cheaper than a good meal.