Maybe you thought from the title that this was another ‘bag on millennials’ post by an older person. It will not be. Since old people were at the wheel of society when drivers’ ed classes were removed from your schools, they are in a poor position to call out your driving, no? Furthermore, I have known said older people since they were your age, just learning to drive. They weren’t great drivers then, and many are no better now. They have zero business blaming you, the most compliant and least rebellious generation in recent history, for handling life exactly the way they raised you.
If I could put a driver’s ed class in your school, I would. I can’t, but I can put thirty-five years of observation and experience out there for you. What follows is my personal opinion (not to be construed as professional or other legal advice) on how to avoid the worst things that can happen behind the wheel. I don’t care about indoctrinating you to be a pliant consumer cadet, nationalist, or yes-person. I care about helping you make smart driving decisions.
The most dangerous place is a parking lot, because people believe you can’t get a ticket there (some places, you can), and because so many people ignore the key rule of safe motoring: don’t surprise other drivers. When someone ignores the driving lanes and rips across the empty parking spaces, other drivers didn’t expect a vehicle from there, so they aren’t prepared to avoid it. Thus, in parking lots, have in the back of your mind what you would do if someone came screaming across the parking lanes without bothering to look, or backed out without looking, or swerved to avoid running over an off-leash child.
This very day, for example, I was driving very normally though a parking lot when some clod began a hasty back-out from a parking space without looking left and right. Most likely, he saw no one behind him, ergo, there could not possibly be any reason not to just back up. I am always expecting something like this, which is why I braked before hitting his rear wheel. It’s not always entirely the parker’s fault, because sometimes one is parked next to a large vehicle that completely blocks vision in one direction. If you can’t see to the sides, start by backing out very slowly with frequent stops until you can see what you’re doing. You may feel like a fool, but most other drivers understand the difficulty, will spot you moving, and stop or honk as needed. You just have to hope it’s not a real estate agent yacking on her phone, or a parent reaching back to separate fighting kids while moving, or a young male who has mistaken the parking lot for a Nascar track, or a pedestrian child who doesn’t realize that walking past the back of a hidden parking space is dangerous. Of course, the smartest place to park is usually farther away, where traffic is lighter and obstructions rarer.
If you wanted to be top shelf smart in parking lots, you’d use your turn signals even there–not to avoid tickets, but to signal intent. Telling other people what you are about to do equals safety. And so that, in case something did happen, when the insurance adjuster or police officer asks whether you signaled, you could answer truthfully: “Yes, I did.” “You expect me to believe you use turn signals in a parking lot?” “Yes. I want people to know exactly what I am about to do, so that is my habit.” Lying to your insurance company is almost as dumb and dangerous as lying to the police.
Any condition that requires lights (except being parked where someone might fail to see you in subpar visibility, or an uncommon location in a non-emergency, which is what parking lights are for) requires your headlights, not your parking lights. The lights’ first purpose is to help other people see you, enabling them to refrain from driving through you. When it’s really gray/drizzly out, notice how the unlit cars blend into the background. When it’s dusk, and some ass thinks he only needs his parking lights, notice how much harder it is to see him than the sensible drivers, who do not need a remedial course in the purpose of headlights. Notice what a fool he is, to think that being less visible makes him cool. It’s usually a macho pickup truck.
Regarding lights: there are no such things as bright and dim headlights. The difference is their aim. Low beams, usually called dimmed lights, angle more sharply downward so as not to blind oncoming traffic on a level surface. So when you are cresting a rise, and the oncoming driver seems to be giving you the brights, s/he probably isn’t. It just looks that way. Yours are doing the same thing to him or her. If you’re both grownups, you both understand that, and won’t play the childish blinding game with your high beams. Of course, from the general tone so far, you may infer that I think you will often have to be the adult in a roadway heavily populated by adult children (and adult morons).
If you get in the slightest accident, it doesn’t matter that it’s not your fault, nor that you have insurance (you’d better). You are still screwed; you still lose. I’m not talking about the property damage and injuries, but the insurance crap that comes after. That’s the system, and if you think about it, it works. It encourages defensive driving because no sane person would get into an avoidable accident situation. But that’s cold consolation when some fool panics and does the one creatively dumb thing that could make his or her problems into your problems. Your best and only real defense is to expect the rest of the drivers to do foolish things at any time, and have in the back of your mind how you’d evade them. Lest you think this is paranoid, if I did not live by it, by now I would either have died by it, or stood accountable for someone else’s serious injuries or death.
Never flip anyone off. Not because I disapprove of rudeness to those who deserve it, or because I encourage the terror-of-everything that our media work overtime to implant in our brains, but because it’s such a limp gesture. If you want to show scorn, just look at the person and shake your head in despair at the state of humanity. If you are pretty sure someone is going to flip you off, don’t look. What’s more frustrating and lame than trying to flip someone off who won’t look?
Another reason for a no-bird policy: someone else may think you are flipping him or her off for no reason. Middle fingers don’t come with perfect directional indicators. However, if you are driving past a business you despise, and no one else is in a position to misinterpret your gesture, go ahead as long as that doesn’t distract your driving. That’s my one exception. My wife and I have some situations where we would flip our middle toes as well, if that were practical.
Yellow lights. That’s not hard to figure out; if you’d have to slam on your brakes, you should probably keep going, because the brake slam poses danger in terms of someone rear-ending you. But think it through, now, sometime while you are approaching a traffic light intersection and you can see that it’s very likely it will turn green just before you arrive. You’d enter going at normal speed, right, and absolutely legal, yes? Too bad someone coming from the right noticed his yellow light a bit late and hit the gas pedal. Or, too bad a last-minute oncoming left-turner on flashing yellow decided to go for it. But if you had eased up a bit as you headed for that light-soon-to-be-green, expecting someone to make a bad decision, then you’d be the one who saw and avoided a very serious accident when everyone else didn’t think.
Four-way stops: the rule is whoever comes to a full stop first, goes first, tie goes to the one on the right, or who is not turning. I won’t lecture on the value of making an actual, authentic stop, because I’m apparently the only one who does this. Instead, I’ll focus on the many people who think that if someone else stops, they do not have to. If you assume they’ll at least do a California stop, they may hit you. Defensive driving: expect great foolishness at multi-way stops. The law says that if you do not make a complete stop, you ran the sign or light. If you are ticketed for that, you have it coming. The whole multiple-stop safety concept depends on making a complete stop, and breaks down the minute someone decides that he or she is exempt from this very sensible rule.
One that they never taught me in drivers’ ed, and I learned when an ’83 Olds Cutlass pushed my passenger door in: uncontrolled intersections. These are dangerous because people think ‘uncontrolled’ means ‘no rules.’ There is a rule: treat it like a four-way yield. In other words, right of way is determined by who arrives first and can safely proceed. I arrived first, but didn’t slow down enough to see the Cutlass barreling toward the intersection. I could have avoided that accident, though the primary fault was hers.
At this point you may be thinking how wrong and unfair some of this is. Do please note: this is not about what’s right or fair. Neither matters. It’s about you staying alive, avoiding injury to yourself and your car, keeping your insurance down and the cops disinterested in you. How it should be is beside the point; ‘should’ is useless. Behind the wheel, you deal with what is or is not, who will or will not, who does or does not, can or can’t.
Never tailgate. Stay at least two seconds behind the car ahead. Tailgating not only kills, but worse yet, gets your insurance tripled because you are always at fault when you rear-end anyone. If you do not tailgate, you’ll only rear-end anyone if your brakes fail or you’re not paying enough attention. It is the most easily avoided form of bad driving, one of the most dangerous, and surely one of the most common (and unticketed).
Anyone who looks like he or she is dithering about pulling out in front of you must be assumed to be on the cusp of a dumb decision. I saved an old woman’s life one time simply because I saw her dithering at the corner, and let off the gas just in case. Had I not suspected she would make the wrong decision, I could not have avoided pushing her driver’s side door into her body with the impact. But because I saw a hint of dumbness and indecision, I avoided an accident and probably saved at least one life. Yeah, she shouldn’t have been dithering, but I can’t control other drivers. I can only control how I avoid them.
Turn signals are for signaling your intent in advance, not for signaling what you are already halfway through doing. They are the way you avoid surprising people. You never want to surprise any other driver; s/he might panic.
There are some situations where you simply should not be trying to turn left or get into a farther lane, notably across traffic that backs up at a light. The besetting sin in Boise is that people are pleasant enough that they will leave room for people to make truly dangerous traffic crossings.
If you need to merge, put on your turn signal and wait. In barbaric parts of the country, no one will let you in. Where civilization prevails, they will. And be yourself civilized: if you want to get someone’s attention, so they can see you wave them in, tap the horn very lightly. They should understand.
The freeway on-ramp is properly called an acceleration lane, and its purpose is to allow you to reach freeway speed before merging. Step on it. Do not arrive at the end of the ramp doing 10 under the limit and expect that the drivers on the freeway must let you in. They don’t have to; you do not have the right of way. If you are not matching the speed of right-lane traffic, there’s no reason they would want to. If you match freeway speed, however, in civilized regions, they’ll make an effort to let you in. Put on your turn signal, pick a likely spot, and adjust your speed. And if that car won’t let you in, just wait.
When you identify idiots, let them get as far away as possible, as fast as they want to go. An idiot is anyone driving unpredictably for the situation, or tailgating, or zoomtarding, or otherwise going full tool. Challenging idiots is itself idiotic. Let the idiots cause the fatality without your participation or involvement.
Speaking of idiots, you will notice that some days are just crazy days, when the frequency of bad driving is above average. (Unless you live in Orlando, where bad driving is so prevalent that no day can stand out.) On those days, you should be extra careful. Drive as though everyone around you just came home from being fired to find their spouse giving their best friend oral sex, and could come unglued at any time.
From your standpoint, all small children on foot or at play, all minor bicyclists, and half of adult bicyclists are suicidal. They are also ways you can go to jail even though it’s not really your fault. Small kids do stupid things; you did, I did, and yours will. You’re behind the wheel of the beast, so you are expected to avoid even seemingly suicidal cyclists and children. That kid is skateboarding down a sidewalk? She might just decide now is an excellent time to practice some sick move, which will fail, sending her airborne into your path. That toddler with his mother? Expect him to escape Mom and dash toward your tires without warning. Teenage boy on bike? He is imagining himself on a crotch rocket, and might find a way to get under your treads. Loose dog? High odds of dashing into your path, followed by the seven-year-old girl who loves said dog, and doesn’t realize she can’t catch dear Fluffy in time. Assume that all these demographics are prone to sudden random suicide-by-you attempts. If the suicide even partly succeeds, your life is ruined. Drive so that you could dodge even a child trying to end her life, because every now and then, you’ll save her life and salvage your own. In thirty-five years of driving, my current tally of lives saved is two small children, three dogs, one cat, and a family of quail.
When you know you will not make the light, save brakes by easing up on the gas, even if the speed limit is relatively high. If you think brake life doesn’t matter, call and get a price on new brakes. Hint: it’s usually more than the list price of a brand new smartphone.
Have you ever noticed how many people will stop their cars on railroad tracks? Take a look. It should amaze and frighten you. Do not stop on train tracks, obviously, and do not race trains. Every year, several hundred people nationally lose that race and pay with their lives. Don’t risk your life, or those of others, for anything that’s not worth a life. Waiting for an eternal freight train is better than learning the answer to the question of eternal life.
Before you change lanes, look one last time. Someone may have shown up. Maybe Scotty or Chief O’Brien beamed them there. Don’t care how they got there: that’s why you look one last time. With your eyes, not your mirrors. Turn your head and look. Also, elderly necks hurt and do not move as well, so expect some elderly drivers to do a poor job of this. If someone’s changing lanes into you, honk and seek a safe way to evade. You should have been expecting that in the back of your mind, so your reaction should be swift and calm.
If you make a habit of risky passing moves approaching hilltops or curves, you can stop reading now, because one of these days you won’t make it, and you probably will not survive the head-on. Thus, you won’t need any more driving guidance, now or ever. I feel badly for the other person, who won’t deserve to die with you.
The farther ahead you are watching, the more easily you can arrange to avoid being stuck behind trucks, buses, and other lumbering battleships of the road.
You probably know that rain after a dry spell tends to grease the roads. Here’s what to know about ice: the physics that may not have been taught to you, because the legislature forced your teachers to teach to a stupid test, and forbade them to educate you (passing a test is not fundamentally indicative of education). Know how moist the air is (humidity). High humidity means a lot of water in the air. In places like Seattle, where the air is often saturated, if the road surface is below freezing, water will freeze to it and create so-called black ice. In dry climates, it can be well below freezing, yet minimal ice will form because there isn’t enough water in the air. This is why the South goes completely nuts when it freezes: the air is humid. If you know this simple reality, you can make sensible guesses as to road condition. Of course, roads freeze faster in shadowed areas (less sunlight) and on bridges (no ground warmth affecting the surface temperature). When it’s really icy, nothing helps much. Physics are your only defense.
Curbs can flat your tire, as can any obstacle that scrapes the sidewall with enough force. The sidewall of a tire is the no-fix zone, and is far thinner than the treads. When scumbags want to ruin a tire, they put the sharp object through the sidewall. A tire may hold a lot of air despite a nail through the tread pattern, but something through the sidewall, tire’s done.
Never run over anything on purpose. You gain nothing. If it’s a piece of wood, might have a nail. If it’s a cardboard box, some joker might have put a rock in it. If it’s a dead animal, hasn’t it suffered enough indignity?
If you’re smart, you will not rely on a donut spare. Instead, you’ll spring for a real fifth tire equivalent to the rest, with the same factory wheel hub as the rest. That way, if you have to be somewhere, and you change tires, you can finish your day rather than spend it limping toward Les Schwab. The real spare takes up a ton of room in back of my wife’s little Prius, but this is non-negotiable. I never want her stranded. My wife had thought it was overkill until we heard the hiss and saw the bone fragment in the sidewall. We drove home from Butte to Kennewick, with only two hours of delay, on a real spare. She has never again groused about the tire I require her to cart around.
Ideally, you would practice changing a tire, especially if it’s not what you normally have done in life (i.e. you’re probably female). Self-reliance is empowerment. If I had a daughter, I would not even begin teaching her to drive without first talking her through changing a tire, by herself, without assistance. Sons too, of course, but the sexism of our society is such that more males learn it by osmosis than females. If you are a young female, it should be very easy to find a brother or father or male friend to walk you through it, though it will be a pain in the butt to get them to let you do the physical work; we are bad at this, and tend to just step in and do it. If you don’t want to figure it all out on your own, find someone who will talk you through the process so that you get the experience with your own hands.
Get someone to teach you to drive stick. You never know when you might need it. “I can’t drive stick” is an admission of weakness which you should conquer. For whoever teaches you to drive stick, do something very kind in return, because teaching people to drive stick takes a lot of courage and patience.
If your driving instructor (like my father) whose main instructional technique involves panicky yelling at you for every mistake, you need to find a better instructor. I almost refused to get my license, it was so bad. When I taught my nephew to drive stick, I explained to him what a hell my father had made my own driving instruction, then said: “We aren’t doing it that way. We’re doing this like adults.” And over the course of an hour in an empty parking lot, with a few engine kills and jolts and grinds and all the expected learning mistakes, he learned to drive stick, and banished that weakness. No one raised his voice, cursed, or otherwise acted developmentally five. Now, my neph doesn’t associate stick driving with nervousness and fear, as I did when I learned it. Calm drivers think. Terrified drivers do dumb things.
Speaking of gender, and this is only my opinion: I think women are generally the safer drivers, because I think women’s brains process information both near and far at once. I think men are usually better at making split-second decisions without time to react, and are less prone to hesitate in a case where there are two choices, either of which is all right if made resolutely, but where indecision or hesitation will be very dangerous. Since the woman is likely to see that situation developing and avoid it altogether, I think on balance she is likely to be the safer driver. However, we must each know ourselves, and compensate for our own weaknesses. Mine is my terminal inability to focus on two things at once. For that reason, I must make special effort to look far ahead and see situations developing, something my wife does naturally and without extra effort. All we can do there is be honest with ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses, and resolve to compensate. Maybe you happen to be a woman who is great at split-second decisionmaking but can improve at seeing the big picture, for example, and need to do as I do.
Don’t be surprised if you auto-fail your first driving test for your licenses. Some offices flunk everyone the first time; job security for them. It’s wrong, it’s evil, it’s reality, and all you can do is take the test again after practicing whatever you got marked down for. It’s a bohica (“Bend Over; Here It Comes Again”).
It’s not paranoia: a lot of speed limits are designed with speed traps in mind. The police do not assign speed limits; blame the city, county, or state for those. However, the police will gladly take advantage of sudden limit changes, because:
The police are your enemies until they demonstrate otherwise. That may be hard for you to swallow, but think about this: in the context we’re discussing (you behind the wheel) their goal is to look good by having grounds to issue you a citation, even arrest you. Safety and justice have nothing to do with it; if they did, tailgaters would get the majority of tickets, because tailgating is the most prevalent and dangerous unsafe driving behavior. If they did, radar guns would monitor following distance, not speed. The police work on quotas, official or unofficial (they deny this, but always remember, the police may legally lie to you without penalty), and on balance, their primary situational motive/function beyond personal advancement is to raise revenue for their jurisdiction, while avoiding being in trouble. They are at work, and like anyone else, they want to meet or exceed superiors’ expectations while staying out of trouble. They are not sainted paragons of superhuman perfection, nor are they automatically thugs. They are people. And when you are driving, nearly all your interactions with them will mean a bad situation for you, one which did not exist until they accosted you.
Is it fair to characterize them as your enemies? Isn’t that too strong a word? Consider: they characterize you as potentially dangerous until proven otherwise, in spite of their overwhelming advantages in firepower and legal backing. When they interrupt your driving day for a nice bohica, don’t you have the right to view them as they view you, you being at every disadvantage? Until the day a police officer leaves his or her weapons in the squad car before coming to your window, or unless you who initiate the encounter (clearly, if you are asking the police for something, you put the situation in a different light), you have the moral right to characterize him or her as your enemy. (Don’t laugh. Ireland’s police, who are called the Garda Síochána, do not carry firearms. I had a nice talk with a retired Garda sergeant in Tralee. In thirty years, he only once drew his nightstick, during the H-block riots in Dublin. Societies exist in which police culture does not treat the citizen as a potential threat until that citizen offers threat; ours simply is not one.)
Would they rather be taking down the real scumbags? Perhaps many would, but when it comes to you and them on the road, they’re not out there to help you; they’re there to see if you will be the next citation. It doesn’t mean they are all bad people. Good cops exist, though it’s hard for them to survive in the modern police culture that regards you, the citizen, as a dangerous enemy to be kept in fearful check, and eagerly seeks out new military-grade weaponry and protective gear (out of craven fear of you). When I was 22, I worked on housing for a conference of police explorers, and I saw a lot of cop culture in a short time. That was nearly thirty years ago, and it’s gotten worse. I feel badly for those that buck that culture, because as the proverb goes, the nail that sticks up is hammered down.
The police can be anywhere. Don’t believe me? About twenty years ago I was ripping through a tunnel just north of downtown Seattle, doing 20 over. No way could they possibly radar me. Then I saw the lights and a State Patrol car swinging onto an onramp going balls to the wall. Yep. Even in a tunnel. The police know the road better than you do, and they know exactly where to set up. Give them credit, and assume they could radar you anywhere.
Though the police are your enemies, since you cannot entirely avoid them, you must learn to deal with them. Whatever you think of them is beside the point; the point is that you can influence your outcome by not being stupid, especially when you know you are in the wrong (the majority of traffic stops are still for legitimate reasons, like going 20 mph over in a tunnel). Knowing how to deal with the police is essential, most people do it badly, and even if you do not improve your outcome, you can avoid turning a minor bohica into a serious four-point stance bohica.
If the officer pulls behind you with lights flashing and clearly wants you to pull over, you should already have slowed down on principle. (S/he might actually need to get past you, headed for a true emergency.) You want to pull over at the quickest safe place. The longer it takes you to stop, the more defiant the officer anticipates that you will be, and s/he prepares for trouble. The officer expects craven submission to authority, and your quick, safe pulloff signifies a properly fearful civilian who would never dare get uppity.
Once stopped, roll your window down partway, turn on your dome light, then put your hands at 10:00 and 2:00 on the wheel with fingers extended. Wait. Don’t get your paperwork out yet, or reach for anything. The police work on fear and control, and they are reassured when they think you are intimidated. If you fish around, they assume you are hiding your weed or reaching for a weapon. Behave as if you may be killed with impunity if the officer even suspects danger from you. Don’t pose a threat, because you can’t win the fight. S/he is afraid of you, little old you, even with all the machinery of an authoritarian social control state at his or her back, and the whole legal system taking his or her word over yours. You are the space shuttle, he or she is the starship Enterprise, and he or she is afraid of you. It’s stupid, it’s gutless, it’s evil, it’s terrible policing, and it’s reality.
Limit your answers and be very careful of your wording. “Yes, officer” and “no, officer” are your most important answers to have ready after your greeting of “Good afternoon, officer.” Don’t grin like a fool, but try to smile a little. When told to, and not before, gather your paperwork in the officer’s sight. If the officer tries to get you to admit an offense, don’t. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” “No, officer.” You never, ever tell the officer why s/he might have stopped you, because that’s like an admission of guilt. An outright admission of guilt equals a self-administered bohica.
When the officer tells you why, and s/he’s right, don’t be a jerk. The police consider all debate a sign of someone who needs to be taught to fear the law (most police misconstrue this as ‘respect’). Unless it’s a question, don’t answer. But if it’s a question like “Why were you going that fast?”, answer in some way that doesn’t concede guilt. “I’m not aware that I was, but I suppose it’s possible I might have made a mistake.” In the officer’s world, s/he is always right just by wearing a badge, and you are always wrong unless you are agreeing with him or her, so you need the middle road here. Otherwise, congrats: you’ve just been maneuvered into confessing, and it is a lot harder to unconfess before a judge than to refrain from confessing in the first place.
If you are so busted it’s beyond belief, like doing 20 over busted, if there is some sane reason, offer it–but do so immediately without fibbing, and do not directly admit the offense. Hesitation, to police, equals cooking up a lie. For example, if you did not see the speed limit sign, say so. That’s not an excuse, but it’s better than mouthing off. It got me out of a sure ticket one time in a small Washington town notorious for predatory speed traps. (Had I been a jerk, it would not have.) But don’t tell the officer your grandmother just died, or your wife just went into labor, unless she really did and it contributed to your mistake. And remember, “I suppose it’s possible I might have made a mistake” avoids contradicting the cop while avoiding an admission of guilt.
Honesty can save you, because police technique involves asking you disarming questions, then followup questions, to see how naturally you respond. “If you weren’t speeding, why’d you slow down when I got behind you?” “In case I had to pull off to let you past me, officer.” An officer would find a hard time finding fault with that–and it implies that you had not expected a stop, but planned to be cooperative. Honest answers come naturally. “Why were you driving that fast?” “Because I am about to pee myself.” “Sounds unpleasant. Where were you going to use the bathroom?” “The Circle K about half a mile down on the right.” If you really didn’t have to go, you fumble on that answer. The officer knows you lied, and you’re hosed.
If you get away with a warning, heed it, because if the police run your plates again soon, you won’t get a second warning. And tickets are like accidents: by getting one, you have already lost, even if the ticket is ridiculous and you can win in court. The time, risk, headache, and worst of all, the encounter with the legal system–nothing good comes.
If you are ordered out of the car, that’s why you carry a spare key in your pocket. Roll up all the windows and lock your keys in. If you are ordered out of the car for any reason, the encounter has already gone adversarial and the officer wants probable cause (or your permission) to search your vehicle. If you lock your keys in, it will make him or her mad, and s/he may call for backup in order to scare you, but it will demonstrate that you do not consent to search. Never consent to search, ever, in any way. “Mind if I take a look inside?” “I do mind, officer; I do not consent to a search.” You’ll probably get: “If you have nothing to hide, why are you being difficult?” Don’t give the truth, which is ‘because it’s none of your damn business, and my privacy isn’t for you to violate.’ That will probably get you beaten up (if that happens, once you hit the ground, work your head under your car so it is harder to hit). Just repeat that you neither consent nor waive your rights relating to search. That may not stop them from searching you, and it may not stop them from lying in court and saying you gave permission, but it will at least force them to get a warrant or violate your rights, which would make it safer and easier just to refrain. Like everyone, the police would prefer to do what is safest and easiest. Of course, if the officer has a search warrant, or obtains one, you must comply. If they threaten to get one, remember that if it’s not a question, you do not have to answer.
If you prefer never to be pulled over, like me, here’s how: stay right, stay between the lines, avoid going more than a couple miles over the limit, pay special attention to school and construction zones, stop when you are supposed to, make sure all your lights work, don’t tailgate, and try never to stand out. If an officer needs to make some stops, anything will do. That includes touching the lines (‘erratic driving’), California stops (‘failure to stop at stop sign’), turning right on red without stopping (‘failure to stop at red light’), and signaling as you change lanes (‘failure to signal 200′ prior to maneuver’). Read the state’s driver’s guide; the police certainly have. I have been stopped at 3 mph over on a freeway late at night, which would not have happened at noon with lots of other vehicles present.
If your skin is darker, all of the above goes double, because the darker your skin, the worse the police assume of you. It’s bigoted, it’s evil, and it’s reality. However, if it makes you feel any better, I’ve had cops tail me at night just for something to do, and I am a middle-aged white guy with a long gray beard.
Speaking of minorities: if you happen to be stopped by an officer of your own minority (or female gender), I wouldn’t play the card. Think about it from the officer’s perspective. In most places, that officer is also a minority among his or her co-workers. That may mean s/he has to work extra hard to get the same respect. What’s more, that person chose a career in police work. Why? Respect for the law, perhaps. Desire to help make society better, possibly. Pays better than some options, maybe. You don’t know for sure. What you do know is that the officer has seen the card played before, and the odds of it helping are small. The odds of it offending the officer’s principles–“you think because you’re [pick a group] like me, you get a special break?”–are high. If anything, a fellow group member may feel the need to be tougher on you. But you do have a good option.
Rather than insult the officer’s professionalism and impartiality, try exemplifying everything that officer would like to see from a young person with whom s/he can at least somewhat identify. Follow all the normal procedures in a way that conveys respect, avoiding all implication that the officer should treat you any differently. Since a lot of young people do the opposite in that situation, this will make you stand out in the most positive way. And if that influences the officer to play (silently) the card him or herself, well, you’ll never know…but it cannot hurt and could help. At worst, you’ll still get a ticket and will not have harmed your cause, then or in court. At best, the officer may see you as deserving a break simply for not insulting the impartiality of his or her law enforcement.
The farther you are from home, the harder you should work not to be stopped. I know of towns in Washington that make their budgets from ticketing out-of-area drivers for whom it’s impractical to come back to contest a citation. That is pure evil; it is also reality. Don’t bother writing to the jurisdiction to ask for a change of venue closer to you; that’s basically asking an authoritarian state to choose to get less money when you have no power to compel it otherwise. Put another way, it’s like asking a drug gang for a charitable contribution to drug resistance education.
At night: driving anywhere late at night is automatically suspicious to law enforcement, especially if the officer is bored. Some consider it evidence of likely intoxication, as insane and fascist as that is. Police may tail you for no reason other than having driven past. There is no choice that automatically leads to no harassment; if you are obeying the law, you must be very eager to avoid being stopped, ergo, probably drunk. Driving under the limit? Must surely be drunk. Sticking to the limit like glue? Probably drunk. Speeding? Immediate probable cause, because that’s actually a violation. There are spots and times where the police actually stop everyone for DWI checks. That should cause a major uprising, but does not, to our national shame.
Speaking of that: not one drink. It’s tough on the bar industry, but the legal and moral DWI consequences are too great. Not one, before driving. My wife and I live by this rule. If she wants to go drinking with friends, I’m her cold sober taxi there and back, on call, happy to make sure she doesn’t ride home with a drunk friend. She does the same for me when I go to an event with drinking. If we’re together, one of us does not drink. It is fascist for the police to stop random people for DWI checks, but it is very legitimate for them to note clear evidence of drunk driving, and to get those people off the road and into jail. If you are parked at a bar, and you get into your car and drive away, it is very reasonable for the police to watch you for signs that you are driving and drinking. And if you are, you will deserve the ankle-grabbing bohica you’re about to receive.
If a cop is tailing you, and you can’t think of a sane reason the police would find you fascinating, I suggest pulling in at the nearest convenience store. Roll up all windows, lock your car, go in, and buy a snack. Come out, eat it in your car, and if the officer is still there when you’re done, then you know s/he just wants an excuse to bother you. If it were me, I’d just stay there until s/he went away. And if s/he finally came over to address me, I’d wait to see what it was about. “Why are you hanging around eating this in the parking lot?” S/he has no right to ask you that, or to bother you in any way, but if you say that to him or her, you’re on the pavement, right or wrong, fair or unfair, fascist or free. It’s safer to be honest: “Because if I drive while eating, that’s distracted driving, so I have to finish it first. I drive away, I could seem to be attempting to evade you, and that’s a bad idea, so I am waiting until you finish whatever your task is relative to me.”
And what if, despite all my warnings, the police officer who pulls you over is an honest and good cop, who has an excellent reason, and is prone to cut you a break if a ticket is not truly warranted? Then you will be fine, because you have not been rude, have not contradicted him or her, have not been difficult to stop, have not admitted outright guilt yet have not lied, and have behaved cooperatively up to the level the law requires. And those officers do exist, and not just one or two. In spite of the overall culture, there are still old school police who believe they are there to protect and serve, who help people chain up in blizzards, who refuse to stop people over bullshit, and who are the last people you want to alienate. So don’t. We need those police. Most of what I said about police is untrue of these old school cops. But they are human, with good days and bad, and are fighting the gravitational peer-pressure pull of police statism. By showing them respect, you do a little good for the world, giving them another reason not to be dragged into the mentality of civilian = enemy.
And if you know you were clearly in the wrong, be fair and adult. Even if you don’t get a break, the officer is not a bad cop for catching you doing something very wrong. Some bohicas are richly deserved. Suck it up, shut the hell up, sign the ticket without bitching, and learn the expensive lesson. If you ask the court for a mitigation hearing, your odds improve if the officer has reason to testify that you were polite and cooperative. If the officer doesn’t show up, all the judge has is the citation and you. If it says you were civil, and you tell the judge you had wished to question the officer about the citation, and the officer is not present (your lucky day), there’s a chance that the judge will dismiss your infraction. If it says you were hostile and belligerent, what do you think are your odds of getting the ticket tossed?
If a judge does dismiss your infraction, shut up in mid-word at that very instant. When His or Her Honor is done speaking, say, “Thank you, Your Honor,” and nothing else, unless the judge asks you a question. If s/he doesn’t, when you are dismissed, leave. “I find that there was no infraction” is a judicial statement that should put an immediate sock in your mouth, lest you change his or her mind. That also holds true for all conversations with the police; if the officer tells you that you are about to get a break, thank him or her, then say and do not one thing to change the officer’s mind.
Speaking of expensive lessons: insurance companies have hearts of granite, and they hire people who can do math. These are called actuaries, and their job is to predict risk based on what they know about you: age, gender, education, grades, marital status, etc. If you are young and male, you are higher risk, and will pay more. When you marry, your risk drops, as it does when you age (for me it was 25). So if you’re young, and especially if you’re male, you’re already paying more. This is neither stupid nor evil on the part of your insurance company, and that’s not a phrase I often write. Think on it: if they have excellent evidence that your demographic is prone to more dangerous driving, they are probably right about you as a representative. You should make extra effort to buck that trend and get to the downside of your twenties without a citation or accident.
I know you do not harbor the delusion that you can slide by without getting insurance, because everyone that dumb just said tl;dr and stopped reading a long time ago. It is true, though, that the typical (old, used, very hoopty) young person’s car isn’t worth buying collision coverage. Collision is the part that pays to fix your car, is optional (unlike the minimum coverages for your state, which are compulsory), and generally will not replace the vehicle if totaled. Insurance exists to protect value, so if there is no value to protect, why pay to do so?
So, in summary: be predictable, don’t jake on the important stuff, expect numerous idiots, and don’t aggro the cops–but don’t indict yourself, either.