I write driving articles for an international travel magazine. Despite my editorial obligation to report on landscapes, history, culture and food; much of what I see passes in a blur. I’ve driven obscenely fast through Europe, South Africa, Australia, Japan, Norway, Brazil and everywhere else they send me. The only place I ever worry about speeding tickets is the United States. Oh sure, I’ve had run-ins with local law enforcement all over the world. But I deserved to be pulled over, and the experience was more like a cultural exchange than a legal colonoscopy.
When I received a speeding ticket in Poland, I paid the $12 fine on the spot. The trooper handed me a lanyard of what looked like Green Stamps. “Souvenir!” I said, holding them aloft. “Yah, soo-veneer,” the Polish cop laughed. In New Zealand, the constable and my wife traded bungee-jumping stories while I fumbled for the registration. “You can just go back to New York and forget about this,” he said, handing me a $130 speeding ticket. I have no way to prove it, but the dignity of these encounters leads me to believe that highway cops in many foreign countries have a profound respect for a respectable-looking driver thrashing the beJesus out of a well-maintained high performance automobile.
The logic is both completely unexpressed and perfectly reasonable: “He’s driving a Porsche/BMW/Ferrari/AMG/whatever. I can assume he’s reasonably competent. He can drive as fast as he likes, within reason.” Of course, on a derestricted German autobahn, reason is irrelevant. But if you’re driving fast and competently in Italy, Spain, Hungary, Portugal, Turkey, the former Czechoslovakia, etc., it’s hard to get a cop to look askance. Of course, the people who live in these countries will tell you their highway patrollers are ogres, but they have no idea what serious highway-code enforcement is all about.
Money. It’s all about money. The way New York deals with speeding violations makes it obvious that punishment or behavior modification is not the point of US speeding tickets. My most recent offense occurred in a sleepy hamlet called, I swear, Liberty. I was ambling along at 80 mph in a 55 on a dry, deserted, wide-median, rural, four-lane highway. After signing-off with Officer Humorless, I immediately filled-out the ticket and mailed it back to the authorities– with a not-guilty plea. In return, I received an invitation to repeat my offense during a three-hour round-trip to the town traffic court.
After serving 10 minutes hard time on a bench in the Town Hall’s basement, the trooper who ticketed me called my name. “Jeez, 80 in a 55— that’s a lot of points on your license,” my new best friend said. “How about we make it ‘failure to obey a traffic device’ [i.e. going through a stop sign]? Judge’ll charge you $100 and court costs, and it doesn’t go on your license.” Why on earth would a trooper offer this path to insurance premium paradise, and then offer it again to another two dozen feisty New Yorkers?
With half a dozen cops all drawing overtime, 50 or 60 citizens waiting to be charged, and a town justice and court clerk who have better things to do on a summer morning than process tedious paperwork, New York State has realized that all it takes is one guy who has read How to Beat a Speeding Ticket to lawyer-up and demand radar-gun certification records, and everybody will have to come back another day. So they gavel down $100 plus $40 in costs 50 or 60 times in as many minutes and everybody goes home happy. “We don’t take credit cards,” the clerk smiled. “But there’s an ATM right down the street.”
I have a gym buddy who’s the police chief in a nearby town. “Get over it,” he laughs. “You write magazine articles, we write tickets. That’s what cops do.” Ridding the roads of cell phone gabbers, left-lane bandits, tailgaters and seatbelt refusniks is irrelevant. Just shoot anyone and everyone with a radar gun and collect the cash. The Car Connection’s Speeding Excuses Contest would have you believe you can talk your way out of a fine. In the Home of the Brave, you’re more likely to sell solar panels to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than “fool” a speed cop.
Last summer, a moron in a Ford Excursion was screaming at the kids in the back when he rear-ended my wife’s Boxster. Did he get a ticket for leaving Susan with eight broken ribs, a moderate concussion and a totaled Porsche? Nope. “We can’t ticket something we didn’t see,” another cop friend explained, “unless we get depositions from witnesses.” There were plenty of witnesses, but I guess it’s easier– and more profitable– to stick a radar gun out the window than to push the paper that punishes a dangerous driver.