Traffic Stops Aren't The Same For All, Which Is Part of America's Problem

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

This past weekend I had an encounter with the police.

No, I wasn’t protesting the death of George Floyd. Instead, I was approximately 25 miles away from the area in Chicago where protests occurred, sitting in a Mercedes-AMG, surgical mask on, while a very polite police officer (also masked) wrote me up for violating the speed limit.

I’d gone to my favorite back road – Chicagoans, especially North Shore residents, know well the ravine along Sheridan Road – to test this AMG. I’d be heading home with some unexpected paperwork.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about this. As much as we value transparency here at TTAC, getting a ticket isn’t worth a post, usually, for the simple reason that unless the encounter with the police or the violation itself is unusual, it’s a pretty boring story. Car enthusiast and auto journalist violates speed limit, doesn’t see cop quickly enough, and soon after owes a municipality some money. Yawn.

The only way this particular encounter was interesting is that I was a few ticks of the speedo from being in deeper trouble, but that’s a story for another time. Because of this, I did have some thoughts about writing a treatise about speeding, unnecessarily low speed limits, and a certain Illinois law that seems too stringent, and I still might, if I can organize those jumbled thoughts. But that’s not why I write this post.

I broke the law, I was stopped, I’ll pay the fine and do the traffic school, and life will move on. Speeding tickets are an occupational hazard, and even before I became an auto journalist, I already possessed a leaden foot. Given how often I’ve been stopped (I even managed to be nabbed twice on the same weekend, on the same road, during one particularly bad weekend in my mid-20s. Who knew ’97 Accord coupes drew the eyes of fuzz?), I apparently also lack eyesight good enough to spot the black and whites. Maybe I need to re-invest in a radar detector.

What got to me was what happened later in the day. Back at home, I flicked on CNN. Soon I saw mayhem in parts of many major cities, including Chicago, where I live. Just four or five miles from where I’m typing this, police and protesters were clashing. Even now, as I write this on Sunday afternoon, the nearest southbound entrance to Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive is blocked off. A curfew has been added to the waning days of our citywide shelter-in-place order.

As I’ve processed the reasons behind the protest, I’ve thought about the all the times I’ve been stopped for driving too fast, or the one time I blanked out and blew through a stop sign on the way to work at a previous job, or even the time I got stopped in college because the Chicago police were looking for an alleged rapist who drove a similar car.

Never, in all those times, have I feared that things would go bad. I never feared I’d be beaten up, or worse. Only once was my car ever searched for contraband (I authorized it, knowing I was clean, and being too young and naïve to realize that cops sometimes do plant drugs). Eighty percent of the time, perhaps even 90 percent, the cops were polite and professional. When they weren’t, they were simply a bit rude and maybe lectured me for speeding.

Even when I was pulled over on that rape suspect mix-up, the cops were fine. They immediately knew I wasn’t their guy – the suspect they were looking for was a little older, Hispanic, and drove a four-door Grand Am (while mine had just two) – and after a quick scan of my info, I was let go with no drama. If any gun was drawn, I never saw it in the dark.

I’ve thought about this before, but it’s amazing to think that my lack of fear is because of the color of my skin. Sure, other factors may play a part – I’ve generally been stopped in low-crime areas, and I’ve often been driving cars that are brand new and sometimes marked with manufacturer plates – but I don’t know the fear that others do.

I realize there are plenty of good cops, and these incidents make up a fraction of encounters with cops, and that sometimes deadly force is justified. Those caveats aside, it’s completely understandable why high-profile incidents like this would lead people who look like George Floyd or Eric Garner to have a fear of the police that I don’t have. Not to mention all the minor incidents that don’t rise to the level of media attention, or the other underlying socioeconomic factors at play.

Yeah, Floyd was arrested for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill, not speeding. I get that. But other people of color have ended up dead after a traffic stop. The circumstances around Floyd’s death may not have involved a traffic stop, but the issues at hand are the same. In fact, the pent-up anger behind these protests comes in part because nothing changed after the incidents that involved traffic stops.

Others don’t have that lived experience, and we need to keep that in mind in the days and weeks going forward, as we debate and discuss what’s happened to this country over the past week.

Some of you are going to hop to the comments and yell at me for being political. Don’t. Acknowledging that the police have killed minorities is not political, it’s a fact. Police have killed white men and women, too. That’s also a fact. Acknowledging that some people have an uneasy relationship with police due to the color of their skin isn’t political. It’s a fact. Acknowledging that a traffic stop is much scarier for some folks than others isn’t political, it’s a fact.

Debating what to do about it is political. Debating about the agendas of some of the folks who were part of the protests is political. You’ll find well-written words about such things elsewhere, in media outlets across the political spectrum. Go there and read those words. I won’t go in that direction here. And please, take it easy in the comments. Our mods don’t need to deal with flame wars.

You may also ask what this has to do with cars. The answer is, not a ton. I’ll grant that. But we’re all enthusiasts on staff, and most of you readers are, too. Even if you’re not an enthusiast and Google brought you here because of a review, well, you drive. If you’re reading this site, you drive. And you probably get pulled over every so often, because it happens to even the most cautious driver. We all occasionally lose sight of the speed limit.

And that’s the thing. For some of us, it’s not a fraught experience. It’s annoying and you get a bit upset, maybe feel a little guilty, but you live. You pay the fine, do what you can to keep your record and insurance from taking too much damage, and you move on. Eventually, the stop and the ticket become just another bad memory.

But for many of us, it’s so much more. It’s frightening. They might not end up dead, but it’s happened to enough people who look like them that it fills them with fear.

Yes, cops have a dangerous job. A routine traffic stop could be dangerous for them, too. And yes, many if not most cops are good people — competent, and not racist. Yet just enough bad apples exist that the whole bunch becomes rotten in the eyes of some.

Our country is going through a turbulent time. No matter where you land politically, or what you look like, you should at least understand why.

And the next time you’re fuming because you have to pay a hefty fine for speeding, keep some perspective. Your anger may be justified, but if you didn’t feel fear because of how you look, you’ve had it relatively easy.

Some of us pay for breaking the law with our credit cards and checkbooks. Some of us pay for it with our lives. Remember which is which.

[Image: vchal/Shutterstock]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • Daniel J Daniel J on Jun 02, 2020

    Some rambling thoughts. 1. Vote in county and municipal elections. On average, most are only at 30 percent turnout across the country vs 50-55 percent for most Presidential Elections. Guess what? The president has very little to do with local police forces. All this protesting? Where was that "voice" in the voting booths? Last Minneapolis mayoral race had 30 percent voter turnout. Protests and the issues will just go silent again unless there is a movement to get candidates that will make changes and to vote for those candidates. 2. I have no issues with releasing body cam footage to the public once trials are over with. Body cam footage going public will simply taint any jury pool. The Police or the arrested will never get a fair trial. 3. Police need more training, full stop. Locally here we have a cop facing a murder charge for "suicide by cop". The cop hadn't been on duty that long and shot someone while that individual had a gun to their head. The officer, after several times asking the individual to put the gun down, shot the individual because the officer felt the individual made a threatening move. This is about experience and training that police just simply aren't getting. 4. Better pay. I can tell you locally here the police and deputies, while mostly good, aren't the sharpest and go into the police force because there is some demand for the job but in many cases, is the only option left for many individuals for employment. 5. I'm tired of all the media, especially sports media, wanting to hear what famous coaches and players have to say. When did the black community really want to know what a famous white coach has to say? Then that coach makes a canned PR statement and it's criticized. Another coach says nothing and its criticized. Another coach is non-committal and its criticized. What do I want to hear from? Mayors and Police Chiefs who are telling us exactly their future plans to reduce the racism.

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    • Brn Brn on Jun 02, 2020

      While I believe it varies by jurisdiction, the rambling thoughts are reasonable. Let's do it!

  • Ol Shel Ol Shel on Jun 02, 2020

    ANyone who denies institutional racism in America simply doesn't want to know about it. A mountain of evidence is available to all who are open to accepting it... but why would someone who knows everything go looking for facts that will upset their feeling, eh? When I, a very white white guy, was in my 20s, I drove a terrible Pinto while my good care was being built. I got pulled over near my apartment one evening while returning with some take-out. The cops said I was speeding (maybe, I dunno), but what they did next has been the biggest reason why I doubt police integrity. They said that they saw me reaching down to hide a weapon. And they'd like to search the car. TOTAL BULLSHIT. I let them, because 1. I'm white, and didn't yet fear police, and 2. the car was a total mess, with wrappers, papers, and garbage 4" deep on the floors. When he searched the trunk, he saw cardboard boxes. "What's in the boxes?" Other boxes, sir. He opened one box, finding a box. He opened that, finding another, and then another. He shut the trunk without searching any more. Bad cops will lie, because they can get away with it, because they're damaged people who believe that everyone is as sketchy and dangerous as they/their old man/whoever it was who traumatized them, and because they believe they're the 'good guy' who can use any means necessary to find out what the suspect is hiding. Heroes. Black and brown people aren't making this shit up. I can't possibly understand and know what they have to go through, but I sure can listen and connect it with the evidence that backs up their claims.

  • Geozinger Put in the veggie garden (Western Michigan, we still can get frost this late in the year) finished the remainder of the landscaping updates and hand washed both my beater Pontiac and the Town and Country! Going to the beach today...
  • Rochester I wouldn't obsess over the rate of change, it's happening whether we want it or not.
  • EBFlex At the summer property putting boats in the water, leveling boat lifts, cleaning the lots for summer, etc. Typical cabin stuff in the most beautiful place on the planet
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
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