Surprise traffic ticket served as a wake-up call

Not unlike most people, I spend a lot of time in my car driving hither and yon. Mostly, I cart my children to and from activities like baseball, gymnastics and swimming. Usually, I am thinking about important things, like what’s for dinner? Or what meeting or deadline is coming up? Mentally, I check things off my list of things to do, all the while adding new obligations to my already full schedule.

Rarely do I ponder mundane, unimportant things like how fast I am driving or what the speed limit is in an urban residential area.

So, imagine my surprise when I see flashing lights in my rearview mirror.

Yikes. I was probably going too fast, I thought. The officer confirmed my suspicions, saying he clocked me at almost 50 mph in a 30. Yep. That would be me. I handed over the required documentation: my driver’s license, proof of insurance and vehicle registration. And then I waited. I don’t know what police officers do in squad cars while they have people pulled over for doing almost 50 in a 30 – but whatever it is, it sure takes a long time. I wanted to be invisible. I tried to act casually. I hoped the deputy would return before anyone I knew recognized me or my SUV.

I realized I had nothing to say. I had no excuse to offer. I was caught, guilty as charged. I should have paid attention to where I was and how fast I was going.

Meanwhile, I was politely ignoring the endless stream of questions from my overly bright 3-year-old. “Can’t we go now? What did you do, anyway? Mommy, are you going to jail?”

In over two decades of driving, I have been stopped by police only a handful of times. I don’t think I ever got an actual ticket for speeding, only a friendly “slow down and enjoy the rest of your day.” So I had hoped for the same this time.

But alas, that was not to be. Actually, I wasn’t quite sure what the deputy was saying. It was more than just a warning, I got that part. I was being sentenced to attend a class.

Come to find out, Sherburne County deputies can offer traffic violators, like me, the option of attending a traffic safety course in lieu of a ticket.

“Well, you know … people your age …” he stammered “Well, it has been a long time since you had driver’s education. … I think this class would be good for you.”

I didn’t have the heart, or stomach, to inform the officer, that I had, in fact, recently studied driver’s education. In the past four years, I had supervised 90 hours of combined classroom instruction for my three older children. But, obviously, all that information hadn’t kept me out of my present situation, so at best it seemed a moot point. So I said nothing.

The deputy then promised he would send information about my citation in the mail.

Sure enough, the next week an ominous piece of mail arrived, addressed to me from the Sherburne County Sheriff’s office. I was to show up in person at the Sherburne County government center within 10 days to sign up for a class. I needed to plunk down $75 cash to attend, but I would not have a fine to pay, nor would this violation end up on my driver’s record. Fair enough, I thought. It certainly could be worse.

Apparently, these classes are quite popular and fill up quickly, because the next available session was several weeks out.

I so dreaded the class. So many things I would rather do on a summer weeknight. But I had to pay my debt to society. Serve my time I must.

When I arrived at the class, I was surprised by the sheer number and diversity of participants. Who knew there were so many lead-footed drivers in Sherburne County? There were teenagers and retired people. There were professional people and not-so-professional people. There were big people, small people, tall people and short people. And apparently we were all fast people. A mass of humanity brought together in one room simply because we each saw flashing lights in our rear view mirror and had the awkward and embarrassing experience of being pulled over by law enforcement. I don’t think any of us were hardened criminals, at least not yet.

The class instructor, who identified himself simply as “Paul,” said it was his goal to help us make better driving decisions. Paul had been with the county for many years and had experience with the K-9 program, Safe & Sober and the dive recovery team.

I found much of the information interesting and pertinent. The class was well-done. Painless, really. Heavy on statistics, the presentation contained several videos designed to help us realize the implications of our sometimes careless attitude toward driving.

•Most crashes occur where stop signs or other traffic controls are present. Drivers simply don’t stop and look.

•If a deer jumps out in front of you, it is best to hit the brakes and hit the deer, rather than swerve to miss the animal and end up in the ditch.

•The same alcohol limits apply whether you are operating a car, a snowmobile, ATV or even a boat.

•According to Minnesota law, you can only drive speeds that are safe and prudent, which may be lower than posted speeds, depending on visibility and road conditions.

•Ninety percent of driver reaction depends on vision. Slow down, because you don’t want to out drive your reaction time.

•Minnesota is an absolute speed state, meaning that it is against the law to drive one mile per hour faster than what is posted. Thankfully, in practice, law enforcement has better things to do than pull people over for traveling at 56 mph or 31 mph.

•The DUI/DWI definitions in Minnesota state that you cannot be in control of a moving or parked vehicle while under the influence or intoxicated. That means that if you have been drinking and pull off into a parking lot to sleep it off, you are still in control of the vehicle and could still be cited.

•There would be an 80 percent reduction in thefts from automobiles if people would lock their vehicles and remove valuables from plain sight. Thieves just open the door and take the purse, money, phone, laptop, cigarettes or whatever.

•There is a 99 percent chance that you will some time in your life be involved in a motor vehicle crash, either as a driver or a passenger.

•Distractions amount to the biggest contributor to motor vehicle accidents, whether it is talking on the cellphone, fiddling with the radio, eating or yelling at the kids.

•The probability of an accident increases proportionately with the addition of each passenger to the vehicle.

•Road rage: It is not my job to punish all the bad drivers out there. Leave that to law enforcement.

•The obvious assumption is that if you wear a seat belt, your chances of surviving a motor vehicle accident is greater than if you don’t wear a seat belt.

•In Minnesota, everyone in a vehicle needs to be buckled up, including the back seat and including adults.

Most of the attendees were quiet, passively listening to the presentation, basically serving their time. A few asked questions. Some obviously felt their citation was unjust in some way.

My overall impression of the class was that Paul, the officer who taught the class, wanted to do his job – to keep the roads and community safe.

Now I want to do my part and keep my part of the world safe: pay attention, avoid distractions, get proper rest and wear a seatbelt.

I am glad to have paid my debt to society. I am relieved I don’t have a citation to explain to the insurance company. I am ecstatic I don’t have a fine to pay.

I think, attending the class, as awkward and embarrassing as it seemed, has helped me make better driving decisions. My children still have baseball games, swim meets and gymnastics, but now I am more aware of my responsibility to stay alert, slow down and drive safely. — Audrey Misiura, Princeton

(Editor’s note: Misiura is a freelance writer who contributes to ECM Publications.)