"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." ~ Oscar Wilde
The Road to Tyranny Is Poorly Paved
We were on our way back from lunch last week when a colleague and I were pulled aside for speeding on a wide-open, four-lane road. It was actually pretty nice out, that day. Blue skies. Puffy white clouds like you see in cartoons. A departure from recent chill winds. And there we were, cruising along in said colleague's car -- one of three total, going east or west -- when my buddy slammed his brakes at the sight of a squad car parked on a grassy knoll. An assortment of curse words ran through our heads just then -- some starting with "F," others "S," as it were. The cop pulled off the median and into the lane behind us, following us to a red light at what felt like a legal speed.
My friend asked me, "What's the limit?"
I said, "I didn't see any signs."
The light turned green and my friend turned left, checking his rearview mirror as I checked the one on the passenger side.
I'll be damned if it didn't take this cop two whole minutes to make the turn and turn his lights on -- he was taunting us, ever so slowly. But turn 'em on he did. And so we pulled over. And it's then when this friend of mine sighed. That's just about all you can do in this situation. We've all seen videos of high-speed chases, and tragic clips of cops dodging bullets as they make their way towards cars. No such blind, stupid bravery here. The best I could muster as this guy waddled up the shoulder was the urge to say, "Bet you were hot stuff in high school -- huh, copper?"
But even with the urge, I'd say no such thing. Nor would my friend. So I pulled the insurance card from the glove box as he leaned back and sighed.
At last, the cop came up to the driver's-side window, and without saying a word my friend handed him the paperwork he craved. License. Registration. Social contract. Oh, but it's not like your typical contract, this one. It's a mythical document -- with no carbon paper -- allowing the State to search our cars and homes. This is so they can "serve and protect" us. Protect us from what, though? I don't know. Certainly not the existential questions we face. "Who am I?" "Why am I here?" Cops can't protect us from that stuff. They can't protect us from the fact that we'll grow old and die someday.
But they can protect us from not wanting their protection. That's why they throw us in jail for not paying taxes.
So anyway, the cop informed us we were doing 71 in a 50 mile-per-hour zone, then went to his car to fill out a ticket. It's hard to imagine why. We weren't endangering lives, you know. The utter lack of cars on the road prevented that. In fact, conditions being what they were, all signs -- save for the few that read "50" -- pointed towards there being no problem with a pleasant, 71 mile-per-hour ride.
But a team of attorneys and civil engineers were apparently able to sit down and decide a few years ago that the only appropriate speed at around one o'clock on a sunny day in early February 2004 was 50 miles-per-hour on this wide-open, empty, four-lane road. And the cop pulled us over with their theory in mind.
Ah, but that's how it goes. Towns pay traffic cops to find offenses. Traffic cops find them. Offenders pay the town. It's good work if you can get it, I guess.
Speeding is a favorite violation, I think, because artificially low limits ensure it happens all the time. This grants cops access to whichever cars they choose. Take the case of Jussi Salonoja, for example. Salonoja is the heir to a million-dollar Finnish sausage fortune (no, seriously). Caught driving 50 through a 25 in Helsinki this month, Salonoja was charged -- get this -- the U.S. equivalent of $217,000. Turns out Finnish traffic fines hinge on a violator's income. The more you're worth, the more you pay. A shakedown? You bet it is. But that's government for you.
Seatbelt laws are another favorite (thanks, Mr. Nader). Personally, I wear one every time I get in the car, only occasionally tucking the harness beneath my shoulder -- instead of above it -- when it's uncomfortable. I don't mind seatbelts. I feel safer with them. But some people don't, and that is their right. They have their data. I have mine. But Big Gov't doesn't work that way. It likes diversity in college, but never in thought. And it's so sure we should wear seatbelts -- and bike helmets -- that it fines us for failing to do so. In fact, it sometimes fines us when we do wear our seatbelts, as a "favor" when it lets us off the hook on other stuff. Don't worry, though: It's for our own good.
Then there's the latest phantom menace: Cell phones. In January, my home state senator, Jon Corzine, proposed legislation banning the use of cell phones while driving -- not just in New Jersey, but nationwide. But why stop there? Some folks can't walk and chew gum at the same time. Why not protect pedestrians and ban that as well? Oh, but, "We must act to make our roads safer," Corzine says. Whenever a politician uses the word "must," you know they're up to no good. Here, indeed, states would lose federal highway funds for failing to do what the U.S. Senate demands -- this from a senator whose state is best known for its roads.
One wonders when this madness will end. The first state to criminalize cell phone use was New York in 2001. A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows their ban isn't working, but no bother: It's nothing a little "publicized enforcement" can't fix. Assemblyman Felix Ortiz is looking to set-up a hotline whereby folks can report fellow drivers caught talking on the phone. How can do-gooders make the call without being called out themselves? Hey, that's beside the point! And who cares if half the calls are erroneous? Fines go as high as $200. The more, the merrier.
With the exception of drunk driving laws, I have a hard time believing most of this stuff is meant for the benefit of your average road criminal (i.e., ordinary human) -- and even drunk driving laws can be abused. If it's raining like mad, or there's a blizzard, I know to hang up my cell phone and drive; I don't need Steve Guttenberg to flash his lights and remind me. Same goes for speeding: I have two eyes and know full well not to drive 65 at 3:15 through an elementary school zone. And how about inspections? Inspections are required, they say, because our cars may be giving off "dangerous emissions." Ooh, dangerous emissions. Pardon me while I take out my wallet and cry wolf.
If you've gone to court for speeding, you know the place runs like a machine. You walk in, hand your ticket to the lawyer, and plead down without saying so much as two words. Of course, you can always fight the charges, in hopes that the judge will take your word over the officer's. Good luck, though. And considering the alternative -- points on your State-mandated insurance -- you're really pretty "lucky" when you only pay a fine.
Not that I mind getting lucky when the time comes. I just wish they'd be honest and call it extortion. Come to my house and hold me over the roof by my ankles, for all I care. You can keep the pocket change. Just leave me alone on the roads. At least then I'd have stories to tell my grandkids.
As it stands, the traffic cop racket is about as fun as the government roads it patrols. It takes me 45 minutes to travel 15 miles to and from work every day. Half the roads I take have been under construction for years. None will ever be finished. Most are only "drivable" in the loosest sense of the word.
The only alternatives to State-run roads are its other monopolies -- buses and trains. But if the airline bailouts of recent vintage prove anything, it's that, absent wormholes and maybe teleportation, no mode of travel is safe from Big Gov't's hand.
You can't fight it, either. That's the worst part.
As a matter of spite, I often hide an extended middle finger just below the window when I drive past a cop. This is what's become of our constitutional right to criticize the government. You can call a Republican this, or a Democrat that, but tell a member of the Standing Army you bet he was "hot stuff in high school," and he'll make an example of you -- guaranteed. It's "publicized enforcement," if you will.
So you've got to just sit there and sigh.
As I've said to my aforementioned colleague a number of times, the State doesn't care if you respect it, as long as you respect its authority enough to pretend that you do. That's the best way to avoid getting traffic tickets. Well, that, and not breaking the law. But that's easier said than done when the law's written to rope in as many people as it can.
"Don't you think 50 miles-per-hour is a little slow on that road?" my friend asked the cop that afternoon.
"Not my place to say," the cop replied coldly, issuing a ticket, and walking away.
Of course not. It's ours. But so it goes.