I'm the kind of person who skips to the conversation when reading a book.
It was Brandon. He was obviously upset. It’s a kick-in-the-gut feeling to be pulled over, especially when you’re a decent law-abiding person. Well, most of the time, anyway.
“What do I do?” he asked.
Like I’m an expert. Which I guess I am, as much as anyone else who’s been pulled over more than once.
I thought back over the times that I had been pulled over, trying to think of what to tell him. I came up with five lessons.
1. Keep your hands on the steering wheel where the officer can see them. Okay, I didn’t learn this from personal experience. It’s the one tidbit I remember from taking a Defensive Driving Class many years ago. When the officer is approaching your vehicle, his (or her) heart-rate is faster than yours. He is physically in more danger, walking on the shoulder of a road, not knowing what to expect when he reaches your driver side window. Put him at ease by keeping your hands fully visible.
“Did you keep your hands on the steering wheel?” I asked Brandon.
I could the groan in his voice as he answered, “Yes, Mom. You told me that heart-rate thing a million times.”
2. Be polite. Don’t be sassy. When Andrew was a toddler riding in a car seat, I often talked with him using the rear-view mirror. When he was unhappy and tired of riding in the car, I would try to cheer him up by being silly in the rear-view mirror.
Once, I was in a left-hand turn lane at a big intersection, waiting for my green arrow. Andrew was tired of being in the car; we had been running errands all day. I was being goofy at him using the rear-view mirror, and was peripherally aware of what was going on around me. The through- traffic lanes to my right also had a red light. Suddenly they started to go, so I went too, realizing too late, that I was turning on a red arrow, directly in front of an oncoming state trooper who had been stopped at the light going in the opposite direction.
Immediately his lights came on and he pulled me over. I felt horrible.
“License and registration, please,” he said, when he came up to my window. I pulled them out and handed them to him.
He rather nonchalantly looked at them. “You know why I pulled you over?” he asked.
“I’m so sorry,” I stammered. “I was talking to my son in the rear-view mirror and the cars next to me started to move and I just went and when I realized that I shouldn’t have it was too late.”
“I know,” he said. “You should have seen the look on your face.”
Was he laughing at me?, I wondered.
“I need you to wait here a minute,” he said, and walked back to his car, still holding my license and registration.
I sat there, once again trying to entertain my little boy in the rear-view mirror.
When the officer returned, he had three things: my license, my registration, and a lollipop for Andrew. His eyes twinkled as he handed them to me. “I knew it was just an honest mistake,” he said, “but if I hadn’t pulled you over, one of those other cars at the intersection would have reported me. Drive carefully. You have precious cargo.” He waved at Andrew in the back seat and was gone. No ticket.
I think that if I had greeted him with attitude and/or denial, I may have left there with more than a lollipop.
So, yes, be polite; if nothing else, it makes for more pleasant interactions.
3. It’s okay to fight a ticket. One night, probably fifteen years ago, I had to pick my parents up at the airport. When you live in a rural area, sometimes the closest airport is two hours away. Their flight was supposed to get in at 10 PM, pretty late for me, but then it was delayed so that they didn’t arrive until midnight. I was tired and wanted to get home. It was snowing and sometimes, in upstate New York in the winter, you need to race the snow, getting home before it really accumulates on the roads.
It was 1 AM when I was driving through a one stop-light town on the way home. I had slowed down to the 40 mph required of me, even though there wasn’t a sign of another person on the road. The straightaway leading out of town was empty, except for the dancing snowflakes, reminding that I needed to get home before things got worse. I accelerated before I got to the 55 mph sign, and was going about 48 mph when suddenly lights came on behind me.
The baby-faced sheriff’s deputy who pulled me over seemed pleased with his catch.
“License and registration, please,” he practically gushed. Who knows how long he had been sitting there waiting for a speeder, waiting to say those words? I kept my hands on the wheel. I was polite. I explained to him why we were out so late, how I could see that the way was clear so I accelerated before the speed limit sign, how I had slowed down through the center of town.
He was like a small child who just caught his first fish. It didn’t matter. He was not going to catch-and-release; he was going to write a ticket.
I took the ticket. It had a date about three weeks off for me to appear in the village court. Those three weeks were the perfect amount of time for my anger and fighting spirit to grow. It was also enough time for me to hear about other people who had been snagged in this town’s speed trap. “Don’t worry,” I was told multiple times, “they’ll offer you a lesser offense. They just want your money.”
Court day arrived. I drove the one hour to this little podunk town, ready to fight the ticket. I signed in on the little steno pad at the front of the room and waited. One by one, people were called out of the room before court even began. When one came back to get her things, she said to the woman who had been sitting by her, “They offered me a lesser charge and I took it. I don’t need four points on my license.”
Finally, Mr. Wet-behind-the-ears himself called me out of the room. Yes, it was the rookie deputy who had issued the ticket. “Mrs. Langdon, we’d like to offer you a lesser charge in return for pleading guilty. It would be a $100 fine and only two points on your license.”
I looked him square in the eye and said, “No, I don’t think so.”
He was taken aback. I knew he was expecting me to be like the rest of the sheep, accepting what was offered and being ushered straight to the cashier.
“I want no points on my license and no fine. I was not driving in an unsafe manner; I was not speeding through your town; there was no one else on the road and I accelerated when I saw the 55 mph sign in view,” I told him.
Okay, for those of you out there shaking your heads at me — yes, I know that legally the speed limit doesn’t begin until you pass the speed limit sign. I also know that 48 mph is speeding in a 40 mph zone. I was simply asking for a little common sense.
He stammered something at me to take my seat again.
A few minutes later he was back. Again he ushered me out of the room. “The judge has agreed to dismiss the ticket,” he said.
I thanked him and left, feeling a little vindicated, but shaking inside.
The moral of that story, for Brandon, was that it’s okay to argue a ticket. The law is meant to keep us safe, not drive us crazy.
Tomorrow: Lessons 4 and 5