This past Thursday, I was on my way home from work, in a hurry, because my wife and I wanted to be on time to the Gipsy Kings concert that evening. Traffic on 495 was much nastier than usual, and it was pretty clear to me that I needed to take an alternative route home, and also find another way to get to Wolf Trap. After jumping on 495 from the Georgetown Pike to get over the Legion Bridge, I got off immediately on the Clara Barton Parkway and headed down to the Cabin John exit.
There’s a stop sign there as the exit ramp meets the bridge over the parkway. Usually, no one stops, but I try to, just the same. I think you know by now what I’m getting at. My mind was on the concert, on the projects at work that I’d been working on that day, on the weather, which I hoped would hold up… and I did a lame rolling stop right past the sign.
As I did that, I saw two cop cars on the side of the road ahead. They’d been looking at me, and one of them signaled me to pull over. I knew the instant I saw them that I’d get pulled over, and I knew why they were there, too.
So I pull over, and this towering cop comes up to my window and asks for my license and registration. I start fumbling around. My license was in my wallet, which was in my camera bag on the back seat. I turn around, pull it out, then try to remember where my registration is. Okay, it’s in the glove compartment… somewhere. I pull out the owner’s manual because I think it’s somewhere in there. All of my papers should be neatly placed in a little folding booklet, which I locate and start going through.
The cop is getting a little impatient. What can I do… I don’t get pulled over that often, and now I can’t remember where things are. It’s not like I rehearse what to do when I get pulled over. One doesn’t prepare for it.
Finally, I hand him what I think is my registration, but it turns out to be my insurance. He’s reaches into my booklet himself and fishes out the registration. “Has your license ever been suspended or revoked?” he asks me. I give him a “Huh?!” look as I mumble a “No”. Fine, he goes back to his car to look up my record.
Meanwhile, I start thinking what I’m going to tell him when he asks me why I didn’t stop. I’ve recently seen the “Don’t Talk to the Police” videos [part 1, part 2]. Should I try to put that advice into practice? Will it work? Would it even apply in my situation? After all, they clearly saw me not stopping at the sign. Shouldn’t I be honest and admit I screwed up? Maybe he’ll be lenient, right? Yeah, but what if he’s an ass, like the Virginia trooper that screwed up my driving record to make his ticket quota?
While I’m still thinking, he shows up at my window again, with a stern look on his face. “Do you know why I stopped you?” he asks. All my logic goes out the window and I suddenly become stupid. “Um, ah… no?” I mumble. “There’s a stop sign back there. Did you see it?” What am I going to do now? I got myself into this mess with my fancy double talk, now what? I stick my dumb head out the window and crane my neck, trying to look at the stop sign I know too well. “Um, ah… um, yeeeeeaaaah, that one,” I say, and feel like a certified dolt. He gives me a look that speaks volumes…
I finally decide to fess up and say something lame like, “I’m sorry, I was in a hurry and forgot to stop.” At least that’s true, even if it sounds really lame. He gives me the sort of look that says, “Yeah right, buster,” and goes back to his car. Oh crap, now he’s got me. I’m going to get it for sure: a ticket and some extra points just for kicks. It’s a moving violation, after all.
So I sit there, wondering just how much it’s going to hurt, and it doesn’t take long. He comes right back and sticks a piece of paper in my hand. I can’t look at it, my eyesight’s just gone fuzzy. “That’s a warning!” he says, and a very audible sigh of relief escapes my lips. “Thank you!” I say. I think my whole being effused gratitude that moment, because the corners of his lips started to crack into a smile.
He goes on, intending to give me a stern lesson, “You gotta stop, every time. No rolling stop, no California stop, you have to make a complete stop.” I look up at his face while he’s talking. A father, in his fifties, with mostly white hair with tinges of bronze blond. An honest face, with green eyes that pierce when he talks, and you can see he cares about people and about safety. A good cop. I try to allay his concern by saying, “For what it’s worth, officer, I do stop at the important stop signs,” then realize how stupid I sound, and continue, “but mostly no one stops at that one.”
“I know,” he says, “and that’s why we’re here! Drive safely!” he says as he turns away. I pack up my papers and start on my way, knowing that this would not have turned out the same way in Virginia, where the cops are out to get you no matter what.
Am I saying I deserved to get only a warning? No. I clearly ran that stop sign, the cops saw me, and I expected a ticket. I wasn’t going to argue about it. I dreaded the points though. I hate the points. It seems they get dished out more and more these days, and your insurance goes up, and they make you a liability when other cops stop you and they see you have points — it makes it more likely that you’re going to get another costly ticket. Points beget more points. It’s a vicious circle.
Thankfully, this cop decided he was going to do something really nice. Perhaps he looked at my record and saw that I’m a careful driver, or perhaps he’s just a really nice person. I don’t know why, but he only gave me a warning, and I’m truly grateful for it. Believe me, it had the same effect as a ticket. I’ve obeyed every stop sign since, and will continue to do so, because every time I approach a stop sign, I think about not getting pulled over again. If it happens again, I know I’ll get a ticket.
Thank you, Officer McDonald! You are one cool cop!