Thursday, February 16, 2012
With a 40-year perfect driving record, I pled ‘not guilty’
A 40-year perfect driving record is worth defending, so I have pled “not guilty,” to violating Mississippi’s four-year-old “move over” law.
I was driving back from Newton County around 9 p.m. when I hit the I-20 road construction.
I couldn’t believe how close the temporary concrete dividers were to the left-hand lane. There could not have been more than three inches of left shoulder. Intermittently, there were also concrete dividers on the right-hand side. All in all, a very dangerous driving environment with limited visibility.
I slowed down in response to the dangerous conditions. The driver behind me began tailgating. The car couldn’t have been more than five feet off my rear bumper. Why do people do this? What could be more unsafe?
It seemed like forever before the traffic cleared, allowing me to get in the right-hand lane.
As soon as I changed lanes, I drove over a slight hill. As I topped the rise and began to descend on the other side, I could see flashing blue lights on the right-hand side of the road about 100 yards ahead.
“How dangerous,” I thought, recalling the flashing sign a few miles back warning vehicles not to stop in the construction area.
At 60 miles an hour, 100 yards goes by in 3.6 seconds. I looked in the rear view mirrors in preparation for a lane change. “What if someone is in my blind spot,” I thought. Given the concrete shoulder, a mistake could be fatal. This was no time to take my eyes off the road and turn around for a better view.
Instead, I slowed down to around 45 and moved over slightly. It was the safest thing to do at the time.
Within seconds, the flashing blue lights were following me. “Great,” I thought, “how do you pull over when there is no shoulder?” I crept along trying to find a place to stop while the Pearl policeman angrily kept flashing me with his spotlight.
I sat in my car with my hands on the wheel and waited for the policeman to approach. Keeping your hands on the wheel reassures police at night. No sudden moves. Hands in plain view.
I expected a light “tap, tap, tap,” on my window once the officer approached. Instead, he slammed his fist into the side of my window in one powerful blow. “Uh, oh,” I thought. “Not good.”
Pearl policeman C21 (he never put his name on the ticket as is required by state law), was not a happy camper. He proceeded to berate me for not moving over.
Thinking he was referring to my delay in “pulling over,” I told him there was no room to pull over. What we had was a failure to communicate. He wrote me a ticket.
About half the Mississippians I have since asked were aware of the four-year-old “move over” law. The law was passed in the heart of the recession budget cutbacks. The Department of Public Safety has little money to advertise the new law.
In essence, you must move over to the adjacent lane if an “emergency vehicle” is on the shoulder. If safety or traffic conditions make a lane change unsafe, then you may remain in your lane but must slow down.
As the driver of my vehicle, the move over law gives me the right to make this safety call. Only the driver is aware of all the variables contributing to a safe lane change. A sudden lane change in a construction area at night in urban traffic is inherently unsafe. It’s my call. I made it. I was not in violation of the law.
Ironically, there is another state law that requires slower drivers to be in the right-hand lane. There are two exceptions to this law and the “move over” law is not one of them. So no matter which lane I was in, I could be in violation of a state traffic law. That’s rich.
I call this the law of unintended consequences. Obviously, we want to protect law enforcement officers. But if police are going to nullify the “safety” option in the law, then people are going to start making a lot of unsafe, sudden lane changes to avoid a ticket.
Every morning I drive to work under heavy traffic on I-55. Often, just on the other side of the Northside Drive overpass, a police motorcycle has stopped a motorist for speeding. Imagine the traffic hazard created when 40 vehicles attempt to suddenly change lanes in rush hour traffic.
Already, “move over” tickets are the simplest way for officers to write a bunch of tickets quickly and meet their quotas. No need even for a speed gun. The Internet lists numerous examples of such abuse. Let’s not forget the money goes to the city which pays the police officers. The “supplemental” ticket charges fund the retirement plans for the police, the prosecutors and the judges. Seems a bit stacked against ordinary citizens.
I showed up at 8 a.m. for my hearing at the Pearl police station. Hundreds of people were packed inside and out. Many were sitting on the ground.
No customer service here. You are guilty until proven innocent, and your first sentence is to wait and lose a day from work. How hard would it have been for the clerk to stagger these times throughout the day? Instead, everybody is ordered to show up at 8 a.m. sharp.
When my turn finally came, I spoke with a clerk to set up a trial date. First she gave me a lecture about the move over law - “there are signs on all the entrance ramps” - implying my cause was lost. Then she asked me to sign a form stating that I could go to jail if I plead innocent and lose.
The form was clearly designed to scare people into just paying the ticket. Can you imagine the chaos if people started routinely contesting traffic violations? Not to mention the sudden drop in city revenues.
As a veteran reporter, I am well aware of the unpredictability of judges when you plead innocent in any court, even traffic court. The average person may not realize it, but you can indeed be sentenced to 10 days in jail for a simple traffic ticket.
But after a little research on the Internet, I discovered that Mississippi law allows a maximum sentence of four hours of driver ed for traffic tickets - if you have no other tickets over the last three years.
I pointed this out to the clerk, suggesting that I could sign the form if I could cross out the sentence about going to jail. The clerk just stared at me as if to say, “Why me, Lord?” Then she sent me to the room with the judge and 150 poor folks with suspended licenses.
I sat down next to an elderly woman who seemed friendly. “What are you here for?” I asked. Surprise! Move over violation. “I didn’t have time to change lanes,” she explained. I showed her a copy of the law. She closed her eyes, looked up and said, “Thank you, Lord!”
For six hours I sat there and listened to the stories of a hundred people who are organizationally challenged and thus failed to have a valid driver’s license. It was a fascinating insight into how tough life can be. My heart ached. “There but for the grace of God go I,” I thought over and over again. My trials and tribulations melted into triviality.
Judge Richard Redfern was a true Southern gentleman throughout. With absolute authority, he could have been arrogant to these hard-pressed folks. Instead, he was gentle and understanding, being firm when he had to.
When my turn finally came, I pled innocent with a brief explanation, hoping the judge might take pity and dismiss the case then and there. No such luck.
I now have an April 5 trial date. At the very worst, I should still get a good column or two out of it. (By the way, I didn’t have to sign the form. Live free or die!)
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