Tuesday, September 08, 2009

"Thanks for the ticket!"

One of the many ways in which I make my family nuts is how I respond to Highway Patrol, county sheriff, or community police cruisers when we're out driving.

Say it's a holiday weekend like the one we're just completing. Someone will say, in ominous tones, "There's a patrol car" and I'll respond, "Good! They're keeping the rest of us safe from dangerous drivers."

I know. That's incredibly square.

It isn't as though I haven't been caught speeding while driving myself. It's happened several times and it's less than pleasant paying a speeding fine. Every time it's happened to me, I haven't been able to keep from thinking about all the good things toward which that money could have gone!

And I have known people to have had bad run-ins with law enforcement personnel who've cited them for traffic violations. Off the top of my head, I can tell you stories of three different twenty-something young men who lived in my former community in the Cincinnati area, none of whom had violated any laws, but because they were in their twenties, ran afoul of law enforcement:
  • One had his vehicle hit by another driver out on a country road. Initially, the offending driver was cited. But several days later, someone called to ask if, in light of the lofty status of a relative of the offending driver, he would be willing to be cited. That way, the VIP would be spared any negative publicity. (I never understood how negative publicity would happen, by the way.) When the naive twenty-something, afraid to cross people in authority, agreed to the request, he soon found himself spending thirty days in the county jail.
  • One drove a van on an icy night after he and his mates gave a Christian rock concert at a church. Less than a minute after they drove off of the church parking lot, they were pulled over for driving left of their lane. He was taken to court and when the young man's father, a respected guy in the community, asked for permission to speak with the judge, he was threatened with contempt and time in jail. That young man, by the way, is now an officer in the US Army who has served multiple tours in Iraq.
  • One had been in his car less than thirty seconds after visiting friends on a Memorial Day weekend. The police officer ordered him out of his car, took away his cell phone, put him in cuffs, and took him for a breathalyzer. When the young man "blew" less than half of the legal level for intoxication, he was still charged with being in control of a vehicle while intoxicated. Ultimately, though he hadn't even put the key into the ignition, a judge and two lawyers, in consultation with the arresting officer, decided to convict the young man for driving 55 miles per hour in a 25MPH zone.
Yet for all the excesses and profiling--racial, ethnic, age, and otherwise--that riddles the enforcement of traffic laws, the need for legitimate control over speeding and other forms of reckless driving is undeniable.

That's why I react the way I do to police cruisers when I'm out driving.

Tom Vanderbilt, in a recent piece in Slate.com, suggests that panic shouldn't be our first reaction when we see the "local cop's cherry top." The Week summarizes Vanderbilt's argument:
Americans’ most common contact with police is “the dreaded and oft-scorned traffic stop,” said Tom Vanderbilt. Most of us view being stopped for speeding or other infractions as an irritating act of government intrusion into a trivial offense.

But traffic stops actually serve as a critical tool for maintaining public safety—and not just on the roads. Police make more than 20 million traffic stops each year, and they often serve “as a net for catching bigger fish.’’ People with disdain for traffic laws have disdain for all laws. So “routine’’ traffic stops often result “in a trunk’s worth of drugs, a cache of hidden weapons, or an outstanding warrant.’’ Cities that emphasize high-visibility traffic enforcement, including Baltimore, have seen a reduction in the overall crime rate. Meanwhile, France has reduced its “road fatality rate” by 43 percent since 2000, largely through an aggressive deployment of automated speed cameras and tough penalties.

So the next time a cop pulls you over, instead of cursing him under your breath, you might say “thanks.’’ That speeding ticket is helping to save people’s lives.
While law enforcement needs to be held accountable for the kinds of abuses I mentioned above, whenever police officers pull someone over who's been going too fast, they're not usually doing something petty or inconsequential.

Of course, my esteem for the highway patrol might go back to watching Highway Patrol, starring Broderick Crawford, best known for his starring role in the original screen incarnation of All the King's Men.

By the way, here's a video of a live performance by Bruce Springsteen and his band of Jungleland, the song from which that line about the "local cop's cherry top" is taken.

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