The other day, while driving along the Massachusetts Turnpike at the tail end of a 1,900+ mile trip, I passed a dark grey car parked in the breakdown lane. Within a few moments, that same vehicle pulled alongside me to the left, blue lights flashing.
Oh, crap! I thought.
My shoulders sagged. I slowed down, pulled over, stopped. I turned off the engine and waited. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I saw that this car had parked behind me. I watched and waited. And waited some more. I pondered the irony of having begun my trip in Colorado and Nebraska where the posted speed limit is 75 mph (vs 65 mph on the turnpike) yet, due to fatigue, I had chosen to travel well below that limit. Eventually the trooper, whose stiff brimmed hat cast a shadow over his clean shaven jaw, approached my car. I turned the key in the ignition so I could roll down my window.
“May I borrow your license for a minute?” he asked in a surprisingly soft and calm voice. I flipped open my red orange leather card holder and surrendered it to him.
“I guess I was eager to see my family,” I said. Aware that my Colorado plates made me more vulnerable to a higher fine, I wanted to establish my Massachusetts connection.
Without looking directly at me, but more obliquely, as if addressing an audience that sat on the other side of my windshield, he said, “May I implore you, the next time a police car is following you, to pull over before they have to pull alongside you? I sincerely hope that is not too much to ask.”
That he said implore made me feel like I was in an impromptu Shakespeare play. His graciousness and civility amplified my embarrassment, not for speeding (more on that later), but because I had not noticed him pulling up behind me. While my car was loaded with stuff, including my bicycle attached to the back, I had left enough space to see out the rear windshield. That my vision had been fixated on the road ahead, to the exclusion of other directions, felt like a serious failure of awareness. I had not been present, I supposedly knew better, and I was going to pay for it. Oh, crap.
“I’m very sorry,” I said, my voice dropping. “I did not see you come up behind me.”
He took my license and returned to his car. I rolled up my window. I sat still, hands on my lap. I thought about the few other speeding tickets I had received, one on that very same turnpike more than a decade before. In addition to receiving a triple digit fine, sharp flames of shame burned my face for having been nailed, for having another point out that I might not be such a skillful or savvy driver after all. Then, I had so wanted to live up to the ideal of “perfect”, or at least imagine myself immune to moving violations, that the blow to my ego had felt even worse than the blow to my bank balance. Years later, in Denver, I traveled a few miles too fast in a school zone one rainy afternoon. That fine, nearly $300 because it was doubled during school hours, caused me to burst into tears. In 15 years of frequent driving (plus 15 years of having a license but not owning a car), I’ve received a handful of speeding tickets or warnings. Whether that makes me a decent driver, a mediocre driver, or unlucky, I’m not sure.
Sitting on the side of the highway as trucks and cars whooshed past, I wondered if I was about to get socked with another ticket that would make me weep. Knowing there was nothing I could do, I chose to sit without anger or irritation or self-blame. I could hear the faint whisper of an old voice running a story that getting a ticket within two hours of my destination was a “bad omen” about visiting Massachusetts. I chose not to listen. It’s rotten enough to be pulled over, and I didn’t need to make matters worse. While it was true I had been speeding, I had not been driving recklessly. My velocity (he clocked me at 78 mph) was more or less in line with the prevailing traffic. Well, perhaps more rather than less, but not by much. Was the main lesson here to “slow down”, something I’ve written about quite a bit? Too obvious. I didn’t think so. I’d have to probe a bit more deeply.
By traveling in the right lane, not the left, I was low hanging fruit, more easily plucked by this trooper than other cars. From my observations driving, lots of people exceeded the 65 mph speed limit that day. Probably every day. Only a tiny fraction are pulled over to both warn and remind others to slow down: someone has to pay the penalty to benefit the common good. That moment, it happened to be my turn to play the role of deterrent. The trooper was simply acting his part. The situation was, I realized, impersonal and not worth rumination or self-recrimination. If I wanted to personalize it, I could choose to focus on gratitude for troopers who are trying to prevent accidents, and for the fact that I had traveled nearly 2,000 miles in just a few days without incident.
Through my side mirror, I saw the trooper walk to my car. Again, I rolled down the window. He carried my driver’s license and some papers.
“You can mail it in,” he said, pointing to an envelope. “Or you can go to the hearing. It’s all explained here.” He handed me the documents and strolled away.
I continued to sit still. Fearing the worst, I stuffed the ticket in my backpack without looking. But then I decided to face it rather than succumb to my habit of avoidance. The ticket, for $130, felt like a bargain compared to my imagined scenario. While it’s money I would have much rather spent on something pleasurable or tangible, I had probably gained more insight in the moments I was stopped than I would have from an hour of therapy, priced about the same.
After putting the ticket away, I turned the key in the ignition, signaled left with my blinker, and waited for an opening in the traffic before continuing. For the rest of the drive, I trundled along at 65 mph. Almost everyone else passed me.