Thoughts about my traffic travails; or denial ain’t just a river in Egypt

Getting a ticketI’m still brooding about the craptacular implosion of my 36 year run without any driving violations.  This is not something I take lightly.  It disturbs me on two levels.

The first level is my self-confidence. By the time you reach the middle of middle age, shading into the dark side of middle age, you’re reasonably confident that you’ve mastered life’s basic skills. You can shop, prepare yourself some basic meals, get your laundry done, pay your bills . . . and drive your car.

Now, when I get on the road, I recoil from every chimerical possibility of accident or ticket. Contrary to the police’s claim about the intended purposes behind the sting and the red light camera, I am not a safer driver now than I was before, unless you count as safe a driver who constantly second guesses herself and is as skittish as long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

The last time I felt this bad as a driver was when I started driving again after an accident that saw the car in which I was a passenger plummet off an overpass and land upside down 20 feet below. This time, I’m not scared of the car; I’m scared of everything around the car. I do not think this is, or should be, the law’s purpose.

My theory about the law’s purpose gets me to my second point, which is that I feel that both the tickets violated a sort of unspoken social contract I’ve always felt as a driver with the rules of the road. Warning: I strongly urge readers in law enforcement to cover their eyes at this point. What I’m going to say will not make them happy.

To my way of thinking, both my traffic violations involved slightly different violations of the social contract. The purpose behind traffic regulations is to protect people and property, while keeping traffic moving as efficiently as possible. I wholeheartedly approve of this purpose. What regulations are not meant to be is a source of revenue for cash strapped states and municipalities or some sort of lesson created in false, laboratory-like circumstances. Increasingly, though, that’s what they’re becoming.

The cross walk sting I got the other day seems to me to violate the spirit of the law, as well as the letter, insofar as the law is aimed at protecting people and property. If you read the statute (Calif. Vehicle Code sec. 21950), what comes through loud and clear is that it relies heavily on common sense, situational awareness, and individual discretion:

(a) The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, except as otherwise provided in this chapter.

(b) This section does not relieve a pedestrian from the duty of using due care for his or her safety. No pedestrian may suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle that is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard. No pedestrian may unnecessarily stop or delay traffic while in a marked or unmarked crosswalk.

(c) The driver of a vehicle approaching a pedestrian within any marked or unmarked crosswalk shall exercise all due care and shall reduce the speed of the vehicle or take any other action relating to the operation of the vehicle as necessary to safeguard the safety of the pedestrian.

As you can see, the statute states no specifics. That is, it doesn’t say that, when a driver is 100 feet from a marked cross walk, if he sees a pedestrian within 3 feet or less of the cross walk, or in the cross walk itself, he must immediately apply the brake and remain stopped until the pedestrian is more than 3 feet from the cross walk. It also doesn’t express any specific times within which a driver must act (e.g., within 3 seconds of having a clear view of any pedestrian less than 3 feet away from the cross walk, etc.).

Instead, the statute says that it’s the driver’s responsibility to protect the pedestrian. I agree. It says, despite the driver’s primary obligation to protect the pedestrian, the pedestrian cannot behave irresponsibly. I agree. And finally, it says that the driver has to exercise “due care” and must reduce speed “or take any other action relating to the operation of the vehicle as necessary to safeguard the safety of the pedestrian.” It’s the driver’s decision how to act in a specific situation. And unless the driver is a psychopath, his decision will be to do everything possible to avoid that pedestrian.

I know my car, I know my intersection, and I know the way normal adult pedestrians behave. (When it comes to children, I slow to 5 miles an hour if they’re on a side walk within 20 feet of my car whether or not they’re at a cross walk. Like drunks, their behavior is totally random, and “due care” requires extraordinary caution.) Normal adults stop at the curb, look both ways and, if they see a driver coming, carefully check the car out before leaning their bodies forward into the intersection.

When I am about 100 feet from an intersection and see an adult pedestrian engage in normal behavior, I take my foot off the gas to reduce speed and, if necessary, gently touch the brake while I assess the situation. If it’s clear the pedestrian’s going for it, I stop. Because I’m familiar with my car, I know that this “reduce speed, observe, and stop if needed” technique will invariably have me stopped at least 30 feet from the pedestrian.

Normal pedestrians don’t observe a car coming down the road and, when it’s 100 feet away, suddenly step off the curb into the street without any other body “pedestrian body language.” And they don’t, as the driver draws near, but is still about 60 feet away and not accelerating, hop like a bunny back on the curb. In other words, all of the ordinary signals were wrong. That’s why I didn’t instantly stop. Or — until I see the video and confirm that this is how things really played out — that’s the story I’m telling myself for why I didn’t stop.

Even if my perception of the event is somewhat off, the sting’s scenario wasn’t a real driving scenario. It applied an objective test (must brake and stop within “X” number of feet of the supposed pedestrian) to an extremely subjective event, one that depends on the by-play between both driver and pedestrian, and on the driver’s knowledge of the terrain and her car.

In its effort to apply an objective test to a situation that his subjective both in law and in fact, this sting differed a great deal from other police traffic activity I’ve seen. Alcohol check points depend subjective things (smelling of booze, being unstable), clinched by an objective breathalyzer test (although even that is dependent on the size of the person and the way they metabolize alcohol). Speed traps depend on your speed, measured by a relatively proven technology. Traps at school bus stops use real school buses that really stop, and ticket people who engage in a behavior that’s highly objective — they drive by the stop. None of these stings operate within the shade of gray of an arbitrary distance for action, with that action dependent on the enticing behavior of an actor who may or may not behave in a way that would demonstrate to a real driver in real-time that the person intends to enter a cross walk.

The right light camera is just as bad in terms of applying an objective standard to a subjective situation. I’m not talking about driving straight through an intersection. I’m talking about right turns on yellow.

Let me begin by saying that I’m an almost excessively law-abiding citizen. I always use my cruise control so I don’t speed. If a sign says “no left turn,” I obey it. I don’t litter. I’d never dream of shoplifting and didn’t even do the stupid thing of trying it when I was young. I don’t use illicit drugs.

When it comes to yellow lights, if I’m heading straight, and if I’m not going to get rear ended by doing so, I stop for them. Doing that isn’t just because of the written rules. It’s because, in those circumstances, the law’s purpose is manifest: stopping decreases the chance of a collision, as laggards try to clear the intersection before the light changes red or eager bunnies try to start driving before their light changes green.

Making a right turn on a yellow, even one that’s shading into red, is a different proposition. At a large intersection, unless the traffic coming from the left uses warp speed, there is no possibility of a collision. And if I’ve been paying attention, and I know that there are no pedestrians either ahead of me or to the right, that turn cannot put anybody at risk. Moreover, if I’ve gotten into my turn by the time the light changes, I’m heading in the direction of the green light and I’m not running anything.

Again, as with the pedestrian situation, I’m applying my discretion to a situation because I know absolutely that there is no danger attached to what I’m doing. I’m also counting on the fact that I can get away with it. It’s a neat, quick little maneuver that a police officer probably wouldn’t catch because, in my opinion, it’s safe and, if I finish angling my turn by the time the light changes, I’m traveling with not against the green light.

The problem with the red light camera is that it has no discretion. It sits there and churns out tickets despite the fact that the driver is engaged in a manifestly risk-free activity and, moreover, is moving with the traffic, not against it by the time the light changes.

The Vehicle Code, surprisingly for a government code, vests a lot of discretion in drivers. They’re supposed to calculate whether activities are safe or dangerous, and behave reasonably under such circumstances. Even some of the ostensibly black and white things aren’t really. For example, about that speed limit: yes, normally you’ll get nailed for exceeding the speed limit, but officers actually have discretion. If driving at the posted speed is unsafe, whether because traffic should move more slowly or is, in fact, moving much more quickly, you’ll still get ticketed.

So what I’m complaining about here are policing activities — cross walk stings and red light cameras — that violate the spirit of the law by imposing arbitrary constraints on situations that vest the driver with discretion. And worse, with the cross walk sting, the police try to imply objective standards (braking within X number of feet) to a situation that is inherently subjective.

This might be my last word on the subject unless I brood some more.

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  • Navy Bob

    Fight the ticket Book, but do not use the argument that you were concerned about your passenger being pushed forward,  “plow my passenger into the dashboard” as I believe you phrased it.  Their seat belt would have stopped that and then you get into the argument about the inconvenience of the passenger over the consequences to the “pedestrian” by a ton a metal hitting him. 
    You can win this.  
    I know what you are going thru, you lose respect for the police and question our driving abilities.  This too shall pass.  Well, your self confidence will come back but your respect for the local gendarmes will have come down a notch.

  • Ymarsakar

    You know there are martial arts type training for driving, right? Things such as defensive driving, how to use the car brake as a turning device, and so forth and so on. Watching out for pedestrian assassins. You know, the works. These days, in the modern era, defensive also means defending yourself against the Regime and their hired puppets, not merely strangers or enemy drivers.
    While I wouldn’t doubt my own confidence in my own abilities because the State decided to slam the book at me, if you do truly feel their actions impact your sense of self, then it’s your job to reconstruct yourself.

  • shirleyelizabeth

    I thought that, if you break the intersection on a yellow light, you have not done anything wrong. Does yellow mean stop in CA?
    Also, red light cameras make me a freaked out and less safe driver.

  • jj

    I do think you’re over thinking it, but I also think a few other things as well.  Among them, I’m prominently featuring the idea that if you ever had any respect for the cops, it’s time to lose it.  That they would see it as perfectly okay to spend taxpayer money setting up stings to entrap taxpayers is very strange to me, and of questionable (at best) legality.
    Californians, Marinites maybe in particular (actually the whole area of the SF surround) have peculiar relationships with the rest of the world – and each other.  This is just another one.  In the relationship between your citizens and cops, the cops obviously see the citizens as aphids, and themselves as ants, extracting nectar from them, like milking cows.  Somebody, perhaps you, lawyering in court, needs to remind them that they work for you: not the other way around.  The populace is in fact not targets for them to scam.  (And that pedestrian-in-the-crosswalk thing was a scam: there is no other word.  Every place I’ve ever lived scams are illegal.)
    Traffic cameras.  Even here in dipstick liberal Washington, every place traffic cameras have been tried the citizenry has told the municipalities, with varying degrees of politeness, to get rid of them.  Even in Looneytunetown… uh, Seattle; the cameras lasted only very briefly.  (Out here where I live – I love where I live! – they installed a few cameras as a ‘pilot program’ on a Wednesday {I think it was a Wednesday} and by Friday the lenses had all been spray-painted to uselessness, the boxes encasing the cameras were all sporting bullet-scars, and two of them had been stolen.  I love these people!  They’re like heavily armed New Yorkers!)
    Our cops are pretty polite.  In Washington you don’t know what kind of artillery the person with whom you’re interacting might have beneath his jacket, so you remain mannered.  We have one judge in the county who despises the state cops – he’s pretty okay with the locals – and takes pleasure in reminding them at every opportunity that as public servants they’re more or less on a par with garbageman.  Maybe we could trade him to Marin County for a while – but we’re going to want him returned after he gets the “Central Marin Police Authority” (you really let them call themselves that?) straightened out!
    But that’s what somebody has to do down there: remind them of their actual standing – not the standing they imagine for themselves – in the societal pecking order.  They’re civil servants, just like septic inspectors.  There’s not a damn thing about them that’s special, except probably they’re dumber than septic inspectors.  You all let them get away with far too much.  But – you went to law school, and you don’t have to go to an office every day: you have some time available.  Devote some of it f***ing them upo.
    Because they don’t know the law, and they don’t know how look it up.  And if they do stumble across something written in CPLR style, they won’t understand it.  You could go down in history as the person who educated the Marin Morons on the limitations of their office!  And about damn time, too!

  • Mike Devx

    Try not to let it get to you too much.
    I’ve found in the past that after an accident – even a very small one – or a ticket, I become hyperaware on the road.  It’s exhausting.  But it fades over time.  After a few weeks you’ll probably be completely back to your usual driver self.

  • Ymarsakar

    In California or Marin, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down flat, first, and always.
    That’s the price of non conformity, Book. But you already know that by now.
    In all the societies I’ve studied and researched and analyzed, California is one messed up place. All the vices of a down down authoritarian system like Singapore, China, or Japan, with None of the Virtues. Except maybe high standard of living and Hollywood prostitutes paying off the protection racket. People there still think Oakland… OAKLAND I say, is why they should have the power to disarm ME over here.

  • Caped Crusader

    As usual jj has it right! Sometime in the 1960’s the cops joined the rest of the public service labor goons and now feel they are elitists and occupy an exalted position vis-a-vis regular citizens. They view you as the raw material necessary for their production and survival. And as it is now with all governmental agencies, it is much easier and less stressful to deal with and exploit the law abiding populace than it is to deal with actual criminals who might ruffle their feathers. A perfect example is gun control or legal immigration. The only people asked to jump through a million hoops and pay megabucks for the privilege are the law abiding. I wish someone would think to ask a gun control advocate, “That’s a perfect plan to disarm the law abiding. Now tell us your plan to take guns away from the criminal class?”

    • Ymarsakar

      It is getting obvious now to the point where you hear stories from California that the Democrats are the ones supplying guns to the “criminal class”. Why should they stop? Fast and Furious makes them stop?

  • March Hare

    I thought about the pedestrian “sting” yesterday as I was walking my dog in the neighborhood.  (I love living where people feel safe enough to walk!)  My route takes me across two major roads, both having curves that limit viewing.  I always “stop, look, and listen” before crossing (at the crosswalk), with the dog in a sit beside me, gauging the speed of the oncoming cars.  Most of the times, the cars don’t stop.  Heck, they don’t even slow down.  I try to look directly at the drivers and I usually raise my arm & smile to acknowledge those who do stop.  
    That is how a responsible adult crosses the street.
    BTW, if the Central Marin Police are that bored, maybe they can help out the SFPD and cite the “Critical Mass” bicyclists who don’t understand that they are vehicles under the law and must give pedestrians the right of way.

  • Ymarsakar

    If the Hitler Youth were put together with homosexuals, on bicycles, and told that Jews are in all the cars, that is what Critical Mass is in reality.

  • Ymarsakar

    “I’m still brooding about the”
    While I cannot pretend to know all the reasons, or even most of the reasons, why you feel this way, I can say something at this time, now that I’ve gotten a better perspective from your posts.
    Once you get through this new stage of life, you should become much stronger, with even more wisdom to pass on to your children. This is, if you can believe me, a necessary step for humans. Only humans though.

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  • sabawa

    It really tweaks when ppl who live within the strictures of the LAW get a ticket.  I feel your pain!   We left Ca 4.5 yrs ago for NC.  Before we left, I was sitting at a left turn light……no other traffic around in any direction.  I waited and waited…..the light didn’t change so I made my left into a shopping center.  A short time later, a photo of me turning arrived along with a $400 ticket.  New traffic camera had been installed, unbeknownst to me.  I could fight it by taking a Saturday class ($150) and going to court in a town several miles away.  I pd the darn fine……and shook  the dirt from my shoes as I left Ca.  I don’t plan on even spending one tourist dollar there ever again.  They don’t care but it makes me feel a lot better. 

    • Ymarsakar

      These days, my sources tell me the state police are pulling people over and giving them the full body TSA search because of… well, whatever. Ran a red light, I guess.

    • Bookworm

      Sabawa:  Today I also made a left turn into a shopping mall.  There was a left turn light.  It was a medium sized intersection.  When I entered the intersection, the light was green; when I was in the middle; it turned yellow; and while I was still trying to get out of it, it turned red.  That yellow light was probably about 2-3 seconds long.

      Also today, when I was driving straight on a very big, very busy street, the light ahead of me turned yellow.  I was far enough away that stopping was a no-brainer, but I was curious as to how long the yellow light would be on this big intersection, on a well-trafficked, busy street.  I got up to 5 seconds before it changed to red.  

      I’m paranoid now, of course, but it’s probably a good thing, because I don’t remember yellow lights being so short a few years ago….

      • sabawa

        I guess revenue is revenue……..and they’re gonna get it any way they can.   I love law and order but ‘those people’ have gone over the edge……shaving seconds off yellow lights for a dollar!

  • fche

    I wouldn’t cut the police too much slack on the speed trap issue either, as objective as it may look, since the threshold for stopping someone is itself arbitrary.  Most speed limits are deliberately too low.