In thirty years of driving I’ve never had a traffic violation, never even been stopped for speeding (I was involved in a fender-bender a few years ago, but the circumstances were sufficiently murky that I wasn’t issued a citation for it). My streak ended last night, though, and not, I think, fairly.
I was returning home from dinner with Jeff and his mom, around 9:15; we’d come in separate cars, and since I knew it would take him a little extra time to drop her off at her house before returning home, I went to the bookstore for a few minutes before heading out.
On the way back, just about a mile from home, I passed a California Highway Patrol vehicle sitting on the right shoulder. I didn’t really think anything of it: I wasn’t speeding and I was, I thought, driving safely. After all, given that I’d seen the patrol car, if I were doing anything deliberately unlawful, I’d have stopped doing it; but I kept on driving along, blissfully unaware that he had pulled back onto the highway and was following me.
At the intersection where I turn off the highway onto the local streets, as I was sitting at the red light in the left turn lane with my turn signal flashing, the patrolman turned in behind me, turned on his car’s flashing lights, and announced over its loudspeaker, “Silver Prius, I want you to turn left here, then turn right into the parking lot and stop.”
I was stunned. I pulled in and parked the car, he pulled up behind me, and I sat and waited. I could only imagine that perhaps I had a tail-light out, or some similar mechanical problem. When he walked up and asked me if I knew why he’d stopped me, I admitted that I didn’t know. He said that I’d been following the car in front of me much too closely and could have caused an accident, and requested my driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance.
There was a car in front of me, but I honestly don’t believe I was following too closely. There were no other cars on the road around us, so I had plenty of room to maneuver in case of a sudden stop. And, as I pointed out, I was even driving five miles below the speed limit the entire time. He said that he’d noticed that, but suspected I was only doing so either because I’d seen him, or because I was intent on tailgating the car in front of me, suggesting that I was doing so deliberately rather than inadvertently (if at all).
What bothered me perhaps most of all about the incident, though, even more than actually getting a citation, was that the patrolman seemed to go out of his way to be condescending, high-handed and accusatory, even though I remained respectful. It started with the directive to “turn left” when I was already in the left turn lane and signaling my turn, and continued when he suggested that I didn’t “seem to be from around here.” I told him that I lived just four or five blocks away, in fact, and was on my way home, and he said, “Well, I saw that you have a GPS in there, so I thought maybe you were looking at it instead of watching the road.” (In fact, I didn’t even have my radio on, and hadn’t hooked up the iPod, so I didn’t have any distractions while I was heading home.) As I was getting the registration from the glovebox, he saw that I had my Virginia registrations in there as well, and started questioning me about whether the car was legally registered in the state, or if I might have illegally put California plates on an out-of-state car. At that point, though, I showed him the California registration and, apparently satisfied that my papers were in fact legit, he went back to his car with my information, returning about 15 minutes later with a citation.
He told me that he was issuing me a ticket, because he “didn’t ever want to see me doing that again.” I mentioned at that point that I’d never before gotten a citation, or even been stopped for speeding (I think I’ve received at most three parking tickets in my entire life). He said, in his most understanding moment of the encounter, “in that case, you’ll want to take the traffic school option when they offer it, so that you won’t get the point on your driving record.” When I thanked him, and said that I really hadn’t thought that I’d been driving unsafely, he retorted, “Well, when you have a beer or two right before getting into the car, this is what’s likely to happen.” I clearly was sober, so that comment seemed particularly unwarranted. Then, as he turned to leave, he said “Now I’m parked right behind you, so make sure that you let me pull out before you try to leave, so that you don’t hit me.” With the searchlight from his car window shining directly into my side mirror and reflecting into my face, that fact was pretty apparent to me, but I merely thanked him again, put away my license, registration and other papers while he drove off, and then drove the remaining few blocks home where Jeff was waiting with the garage door open, wondering what had happened to me.
Now I wait for the letter to arrive telling me what the fine is, and decide if I want to try to contest the ticket. Given how “following too closely” has no clear legal definition, though, it would be my word against his, no matter how clean my driving record is, so it’s probably easier just to pay the fine and spend the eight hours in traffic school (which, apparently, tend to be run by stand-up comics, so maybe it won’t even be all bad–though depending on the level and quality of the humor, that could make it worse). It feels, though, almost like I’d been chosen at random for some perverse reason–my boss said, “Maybe he just doesn’t like people who drive Priuses”–or to fill a daily quota; and “driving too closely” sure seems a conveniently subjective infraction to level against someone when you can’t charge them with anything else.
I was pretty upset last night after I got home, but I guess I’ve reached a shrugged-shoulder, “ah well, that’s life” mental accommodation since then. And in the end–given his disrespectful, insulting and authoritarian behavior towards me, with no provocation on my part–I’m pretty sure I’m the better man.