I recently completed a sizeable road trip in the 996: Iowa to New Mexico, and then the return trip, around a month later. It was about seventeen or eighteen hours of drive time each way, and I tried a different route in each direction, stopping for one overnight rest on each leg. During the second day of the southbound trip, I was pulled over and ticketed. During the first day of the northbound trip, I was pulled over, but not ticketed. As I added these instances to my library of personal brushes with “traffic enforcement” personnel, my opinions on the matters of speeding laws, enforcement, and the related judicial process remained as they have for years, only further hardened: the regulation of speed on public roads in America has very little to do with public safety, fuel conservation, or any such high-minded goal. If any of that takes place, it is an unexpected benefit. In most cases, this practice is nothing but roving, random tax collection and/or municipal revenue generation.
First, I’ll relate the incidents. The second day of the southbound leg was from Clovis, NM to Alamogordo, NM. This involved passing through Roswell, NM, proceeding through the Sierra Blanca Range, then spilling out into the Tularosa Basin. The route is simple—Highway 70 to Highway 54. I was looking forward to getting into familiar territory (Ruidoso) for a bathroom break, and the afternoon weather was nice, and the scenery was lovely, and the traffic was light. And the officer of the law, driving a black Explorer, tagged me traveling in the opposite direction as I rounded the base of a hill. The Explorer turned a quick 180 and stopped me just outside of Hondo, NM. The officer was a kind enough fellow, allowing me to continue my travel to the nearest public restroom before issuing me my citation for 80 in a 60. He was also very clear, nigh encouraging, about where the Magistrate Court was and how I could stop in there for alternative solutions to simply mailing in a “guilty” plea and associated fine.
The second incident occurred somewhere around Meade, KS in the late evening. I was negotiating a steady uphill sweeper when my V1 lit up with a strong Ka-band warning. There was a good bit of traffic flowing in the opposite direction, so, expecting the officer would have to safely exit the traffic, perform a U-turn, and then pursue me, I kept an eye in the rearview. Sure enough, after not too long, some rapidly approaching headlights filled the mirror. With the cruise set at the speed limit, I carried on for some time, the taxman lawman hovering on my bumper. After about ten minutes, he flashed lights and pulled me over for “failing to signal” as the road went from one lane to two and I moved to the right. I was pretty sure that was not an infraction of the law, but it was quickly clear that he wasn’t interested in ticketing me for it anyway.
We went through the usual dance: do you know why I pulled you over,license, registration, insurance. Then he asked me if I had “Any guns or knives in the car? Anything illegal?” Okay, I get that our law enforcement officers have a difficult job, one that can be long hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror. I respect them for what they do, and I think I do a good job of getting that message across with my demeanor during a traffic stop—it helps to have a good bit of experience with traffic stops, of course—both hands visible on the wheel, seat belt on, engine and radio off, window down, polite greeting. But I admit to stifling a laugh at the second part of his question. If I did have contraband, would I be expected to just tell him so? I guess at this point, though, many criminals would crack, and they’d do something unintentionally hilarious, extremely dangerous, or unbearably tragic.
Of course, since I wasn’t gun- or drug-running, the answers to his questions came pretty easily. He noted my radar detector, and made a comment that I’d being going pretty quickly and then slowed down. I used the “Clear and Present Danger” defense: I have no recollection, Senator (though not in so many words, of course). I explained to the officer that I was enroute from New Mexico to Dodge City, where I’d booked a hotel for the evening. He brightened, gave me useful directions to Dodge City, and sent me on my way.
It turned out that the fix for offense number one was to plead “no contest” with the Ruidoso Magistrate Court judge, who placed me on ninety days’ “probation” and ordered I pay court fees plus a $50 “donation” to the local Crime Stoppers program. Thus, the cost of the “no contest” plea was about the same as the ticket would have been, except I had to appear in person, which meant I had to return to Ruidoso, which meant I also bought gas and lunch there. Of course, the benefit for me was avoiding the guilty plea and the resulting black mark on my record.
Of course, there was no fix required for offense number two, since I wasn’t ticketed. But it sure felt like the main reason for that was because I’d already arranged to spend money nearby, at the Dodge City hotel.
As far as safety, the officer that pulled me over for offense number one even admitted to personally campaigning to raise the posted limit on the road I’d been on, explaining that the limit of 60 had carried over from when said road was a narrow two-lane instead of the present-day modernized four-lane. Basically, then, the lawman himself admits the law is in place more as a means of legal extortion for the good of the municipality than anything else.
In the second case, I’m fairly certain it was more unsafe for the officer to exit the traffic, perform a U-turn, overtake me, follow me for ten-plus minutes, then pull me over (all at night, remember) than it would have been to just let me carry on with my journey.
These experiences and other, similar ones I’ve had are proof that clearly, the traffic enforcement situation as it exists is ridiculous—it is not keeping the roads, nor the areas around them, safer. Cops that could be posted up in schools or at playgrounds or at convenience stores are sitting alongside roads, choosing drivers at random to impose a random tax on to raise money for their municipality. Cities and towns that could be spending money on infrastructure or parks or education are spending it on speed cameras and traffic court administration. Cars keep getting larger, heavier, and more expensive—why? Because no one in America can be told they’re a terrible driver, so instead our leaders mandate more and more and more crash and pedestrian safety measures (and fuel economy demands). Instead of decrying and attacking the lack of attentiveness, skill, and effort most people put into driving, we allow incompetence and ignorance to slide, and just isolate those traits, and the slovenly individuals that exhibit them, behind tons of high-strength steel and an ever-increasing number of airbags.
Driver education should be more like getting a Day VFR flying license. It should require forty hours’ time with a certified instructor, and include city, freeway, and mixed driving. Merging onto and off of highways, left turns across traffic, right- and left-lane discipline, and parallel parking should all be demonstrated to a degree of proficiency. A “cross-country” trip of longer endurance should be planned and executed. The student driver should have to use a map to find where they are and how to get where they want to go, lest their cell phone die and their navigation system fail to load. They should have to refuel their vehicle, know what an octane rating is, and know the difference between gasoline, various gasoline/ethanol mixtures, and diesel fuels. They should have to change a tire. Lastly, they should know exactly when/how their car will exceed its performance envelope (in varying weather conditions), and what to expect from the vehicle when that happens. Emergency braking and maneuvers training should be a must.
It’s a lot to expect from a 16-year-old, sure. But they will face all of these situations soon enough in the real world, most likely without an experienced driver sitting next to them. I know I did. Is the best solution to just throw teens into the fire? Or can we admit that maybe, just maybe, before we put a near-child in command of some hurtling tonnage of steel, glass, and petroleum product, it might be a good idea to formally and adequately train them? Sure, education (of all kinds) comes at a cost of time and money. But we do it because it’s worth it—and certainly so when it comes to the high stakes, threat-of-life-and-limb world of modern-day driving, wouldn’t you say?
But instead we issue licenses to anyone with a pulse and hide behind the façade of “traffic enforcement,” a meaningless process that somehow is supposed to make all that is wrong, and all that we don’t demand, about our licensing system just go away. It doesn’t. It only sweeps the flaws under the rug while making money for the system that perpetuates those flaws.
Is this post self-serving? Yes. Am I motivated to write it because I got a ticket? Yes. Do those facts make me wrong? Absolutely not. My children will have hours and hours of autocrosses and teen driving courses under their belts before I let them anywhere near a public road. They will read maps and change tires and drive stick. They won’t be depending on an officer of the law to materialize and admonish them to be safer drivers. Instead, they will have the experience and the knowledge to know where the limits of safety are and thus also know the difference between “traffic safety,” “traffic laws,” and how those two things are, in our current system, completely unrelated.