My Turn: Dodging a harsh driving penalty affords an opportunity to refocus on the road

Sunday, June 18, 2017

What happened was, I left my writing group late. I just couldn’t tear myself away, even knowing that now I’d be late for my exercise class. Which meant I drove a little fast down a winding country road, while telling myself it was okay to be late, good to be late, better to miss fifteen minutes of those so miserable squats and impossible side planks. Still, I was watching the clock. Which meant I wasn’t watching a few other things as I made my way down Routes 5 and 10 to Federal Street. All the while, uttering my mantra, “It’s okay to be late. It’s better to be late.” So, I was surprised to see those flashing lights appear right behind me. You know, those blue lights that signal trouble, ordering you to pull over and stop. I stopped, thinking now I’m really going to be late.

I know the drill: roll down the window, get out license, wait and sweat. Meanwhile, a policeman sat in his car and checked something — license plate, registration, what? After a few minutes, I observed him walk over. “What did I do?” I asked, not to be coy, but for a brief moment honestly confused. He gave a short head shake, maybe a wry grin, as if to say he wasn’t buying my confusion. “Did you see that stop sign?” he asked. I nodded. “Wasn’t even a rolling stop, now was it? Don’t think you stopped at all,” he added. “And guess you didn’t even see me,” the obvious icing on the stupid driver cake. I nodded harder. I knew he was right. But I also noticed that he wasn’t taking out his ticketing pad. Instead, I imagined he was taking my measure, seeing me. Perhaps seeing white. Perhaps seeing female. Perhaps seeing elderly. (Maybe, and I’m not on firm ground here, he was seeing an elderly lady in sharp striped leggings.)

I admitted my mistake, apologized for my driving and I even said, and here I blush, that I was in a hurry to get to a bathroom, which suddenly seemed true. Thus, instead of a moving violation, the kind of ticket that instantly erases all those good driver points to be replaced by bad driver fees, making already high insurance rates higher, I got a kindly lecture. The sort an earnest soul might give his granny. “Drive safer,” he said, and then returned to his vehicle. I watched him turn and drive away. I won’t even be that late, I thought.

It’s happened before that I’ve received a stern reminder rather than a harsh penalty. “Lady, we’ve been behind you for five miles. Didn’t you see us?” A fair question. The fair answer was that I didn’t. I was too busy composing lesson plans for the day’s class ahead. After dropping my kids off at their school, in a hurry to get to my school, I had exceeded the posted speed limits through a construction zone, and missed the flashing light, maybe even a siren, behind me. My head thoughts were capable of gating out all distractions. And yet once again I was given a pass, a firm but kindly stated warning — a reminder to drive safe.

I’m not proud here that there have been other transgressions over the years. Once passing in a no-passing zone, although I thought it was a passing zone, while being stuck behind a very slow driver. Once at night when, in a new car, the lights I thought were on were not. Again, a caution. Over the years, I’ve gotten one ticket (not counting numerous parking tickets). But the point is that I’ve been both careful and very lucky or if not simply lucky, I’ve been well treated. Perhaps my police folk were in a good mood that day, so made generous judgment calls. Or maybe their decisions were made through that particular prism that weighs threats and dangers.

We all have a paradigm for subjectivity that may control our own levers of personal sorting. Whether we forgive or blame, smile or snarl, see accidental harm or intentional assaults; whether we let an insult pass or come down hard, we are sometimes fair and sometimes biased. Make no mistake, I am grateful for the fair, for the stern, for the gentle, rather than the punitive. I’d wish every driver such treatment as well. And as for me, it’s been a full stop, not even a hint of a rolling one, at every stop sign since.

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.