Image: Rich speeder ©Mark Evans, The Agency Collection, Getty Images

Think you could ever empathize with a multimillionaire in a Ferrari busted with his foot to the floor?

You might if that driver were stopped in a place like Finland or Switzerland, two in a growing number of European nations that consider a driver's income when tabulating the cost of a traffic ticket. In the U.S., a habitual lead-foot has more to fear, financially, from his car insurance company than he does from Officer Bob.

Law enforcement in Europe goes right for the wallet.

Consider the 2009 penalty for a villa owner whose personal wealth exceeded $20 million: $300,000 for driving his Ferrari Testarossa 85 mph through a Swiss village, at the time the largest speeding ticket in the world.

But the man held the record only briefly. The next year, a Swedish multimillionaire clocked at 180 mph in his new Mercedes-Benz on a Swiss highway was expected to take home a $1 million fine.

Maximum fines are permitted to go even higher in Germany, to $16 million.

The graduated-penalty structure dates back nearly 100 years in Nordic countries and is not restricted to traffic offenses. In recent years, the system has been adopted in France, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. How tickets are assessed varies. But, in general, authorities determine the severity of the offense and multiply the ticket by some measure of the driver's income.

In the U.S., penalties depend on where you speed, not how much you make. Maximum fines for first-timers run from $50 in Tennessee to $2,500 in Virginia and Illinois, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

A $300 fine represents a little over three minutes of earnings for LeBron James, who took home $45.7 million in 2010. But someone earning the minimum wage would have to work a week to pay it off.

'The system is very democratic'

In Finland, headline-grabbing tickets are old news. Speeding and other petty crimes have long been met with "day fines" -- a penalty equal to a day's income, minus a few deductions for children and living expenses. Finnish police tap the country's tax database, use those records to calculate a day fine, then levy the appropriate number of day fines for the offense.

Both the heir to a sausage fortune and a Nokia executive received $100,000-plus speeding tickets in the early 2000s.

One Finnish hockey player, fined $39,000 for causing an injury crash, threatened to leave the country. The executive of a wood products company, outraged after nearly $60,000 in fines, called it "legalized robbery by police," adding, "I'm surprised they're not authorized to shoot you, too."

But voters hardly appear sympathetic.

In Finland, surveys show that 80% of citizens support a graduated-fine structure. When a legislator introduced a bill in 2000 to cap most speeding tickets at $8,000, she received support from only 29 of 200 lawmakers, according The Wall Street Journal.

"The system is very democratic," Heikki Summala, a professor at the University of Helsinki, told U.S. News & World Report. "Huge fines are not common, and the people who get them generally accept it, because they have the money to pay for it."