Get Out of the Way, Idaho

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I’ve been a licensed driver for 22 years, and in that time have received my share of speeding tickets. Just about everyone has at some point. People who have never gotten a speeding ticket are like people who have never gotten a cavity, in the sense that shut up, nobody wants to hear it. But after a flurry of infractions in my teens and 20s, my run-ins with Johnny Law have grown markedly infrequent in recent years. My last ticket was in June 2005 — almost eight years ago! And eight is practically nine, which is basically a decade, so it’s been more or less a decade since my last ticket.

Until a couple weeks ago, that is. That’s when my streak ended. Gather ’round and I’ll tell you the tale! As with many unfortunate events, it involves Idaho.

One of the things I have enjoyed about living in Oregon compared to where I lived before — Utah and California — is that I almost never see cops on the freeways here. In California and Utah, you have to constantly watch your speed because every two miles there’s a highway patrolman parked in the median, looking for something to do. I believe the difference is due partly to the fact that Oregon has “state police,” who have a variety of crime-fighting responsibilities on and off the freeways, while Utah and California have “highway patrol,” whose only real function is to give speeding tickets.

(Yes, yes, fine, they will also assist you if you have an accident or get a flat tire. So will AAA, or a nice stranger. Really, any time the TV series “CHiPs” showed a highway patrolman doing anything other than writing a speeding ticket, it was lying.)

My point is, the reason I haven’t gotten a speeding ticket since moving to Oregon isn’t that I’ve stopped speeding, it’s that there are fewer police officers interested in catching me at it. Or at least that’s the impression I get.

Anyway. I was driving back to Portland from Utah, where I’d been visiting friends and family, and also kind of covering the Sundance Film Festival for my employer (the Internet). The 12-hour drive between Portland and Salt Lake City is largely a pleasant one, with lovely scenery and majestic mountains and so forth. The exception is the chunk in the middle where you’re in southern Idaho, surrounded by unsightly terrain and boring destinations. (In fact, those exact phrases appear on Idaho’s tourism brochure.) I know Idaho’s real slogan is “The Potato State — for People Who Love Potatoes,” but I think it should be “The Nuisance State: Getting in the Way While You’re Trying to Go Somewhere Else.”

I was in the Idaho part of the trip, on the outskirts of Boise, moving with the flow of traffic, going about 75 miles per hour. (For readers who use the metric system, that’s 113 liters per hectare.) The speed limit was 65. I was adhering to the well-established principle that when you’re using the Interstate Highway System, you can go about 10 above the speed limit without anybody minding, especially if the other drivers are also going that fast. It’s one of those situations where the law isn’t enforced as long as everyone’s breaking it uniformly.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw the red and blue lights in my rearview mirror. And remember, I hadn’t been pulled over in more than a decade, so in addition to my surprise, you can also imagine my pants-befouling terror. I’d forgotten what it felt like be pulled over by the police, that fiery sensation of panic, humiliation, and fear, like being called to the principal’s office over the loudspeaker at the very moment that you’ve got your finger up your nose.

On this occasion, that feeling was quickly overtaken by Dowager Countess levels of indignation. I’m getting pulled over on the interstate for going 75 in a 65? Are you KIDDING me?? What in heaven’s name is going on here?! I could hardly believe it was happening. Surely there was something else — surely my trunk was on fire, or I had struck a pedestrian miles back and failed to notice him clinging to the rear bumper, or SOMETHING.

Incredulous, yet eager to see what would happen next, I pulled over. The cop approached my car on the passenger side. I know they do that sometimes for safety reasons, but it always freaks me out a little because it feels like he’s going to get in, like he needs a ride somewhere. I leaned over to roll down the window and saw that the uniformed officer was a fresh-faced boy who couldn’t have been more than 13. I have heard that in some rural places you can get a driver’s license earlier than 16 so you can drive a tractor on the family farm, so perhaps there is a similar exception for plucky teens who wish to become police officers. I glanced at the police car now parked behind me to see if it contained an older, larger cop who looked like the lad at my window, who I would assume was the boy’s father, taking him out to see what Dad does for a living, but there was no one. Officer Doogie Howser was out on his own. How exciting it must have been for him!

We had this conversation:

JUNIOR COP: I pulled you over because of your speed. Do you know how fast you were going?
ME: About 75?
JUNIOR COP: Yes. The speed limit is 65.
ME: … Right.
JUNIOR COP: So why were you going 75?
ME: Because that’s how fast people go when the speed limit is 65.

I knew I wasn’t doing myself any favors. But I figured a cop who will pull you over for going 75 in a 65 is probably trying to reach a quota, which means you’re getting a ticket even if you’re apologetic and remorseful. And anyway, even if I had wanted to, I’m not sure I could have convincingly played the role of someone who is sorry for driving quickly through Idaho.

He went back to his car, wrote me a ticket on his Li’l Lawman Playtime Fun Set, and sent me on my way. Ninety bucks it’ll cost me: not too bad. The greater toll was on my psyche. For you see, Officer Hasbro was part of the Idaho State Police. That’s what they have in Idaho — same as Oregon, where I’ve been speeding-ticket-free for a quarter-century. Suddenly my worldview changed. If I can get a citation for gently breaking the speed limit in Idaho, it can probably happen in Oregon, too. Since then I have been paranoid about going even one mile per hour above the posted limit. The people who write speeding tickets for a living would probably say, “Good, that’s the point,” but I say shut up, nobody wants to hear it.