Feed the Beast — Me and Radar

We got off on the wrong foot. I was an exuberant 15-year old, driving a dented Datsun pickup too fast in the pre-dawn darkness on 1 October 1971. I remember that fateful day and year because I was headed out to a remote patch of swamp for, of all things, the opening day of squirrel season and I had had my drivers’ license for 29 days. Squirrel pursuit is an honorable activity for a larval redneck. The streets of Lower Third were vacant and I was going 48 mph in a 35 zone. Not so bad but bad enough for the hidden white Chevy to light up and pull me over.

Then, what should have been a simple speeding ticket got complex and not because there was an uncased shotgun in the gun rack and a box of shells sitting in the passenger seat either — the cops didn’t look twice at that. No, he looked at my driver’s license, cocked one eyebrow and asked “You Judge Foote’s son?” While I am a speeder, I am no liar, so “Yes”. Now the cop had a dilemma on his hands and people of petty power who love rules do not like to make subjective decisions in their daily route of progress. He returned to his car for a lengthy consultation with his partner then slowly walked back to my window where the mosquitos were swarming in. He asked me “What do you think I should do about this?” Well, that was about the stupidest question I had ever heard but it was a weird reversal of power and it put ME in the decision seat. I KNEW what he should do but I also didn’t want that ticket. There was no way I was going to default to seeking overt privileges so I just shrugged dumbly. He said “You go on home and tell your daddy about this yourself” which I didn’t do. Then 2 weeks later my dad pulled me aside with “Why didn’t you tell me?” to which I stammered “I-I-I didn’t think he really wanted me to!” Which was a somewhat honest, if self-protecting rebuttal. Then Judge Dad sentenced me to 1.5X the usual punishment by withdrawing my license for 3 weeks and made me look at the gory photo album of car wreck images he liked to trot out to young speeders. Ouch! In hindsight, those were the teachable moments my dad lived for.

There were a few other radar encounters on long motorcycle trips, at least one Vascar unit turned on his lights from the oncoming 2-lane where I was closing at 20 mph over the posted limit (~80 in a 60 zone). From the line of traffic and lack of shoulders or turnouts, I knew I was going to have about a two minute lead on him so I kept on speeding along acting dumb; not really running from him because Lord only knows who he was actually after, right? Eventually, I whipped into a fast food restaurant, parked the bike behind a semi unloading supplies and had my helmet off before he blew past with lights a-whirling. It was an exhilarating escape so I celebrated with a deluxe burger and milk shake from the ticket money I “saved”.

OK, why go so fast? Welp, adrenaline is an expensive drug. People pay a lot of money for tiny doses of adrenaline and pay a lot more to avoid too large a dose. In fact, if one weights out the price of odd sounding speed machines — Venon, Superlegera, Tirranna, and Sukhoi in relation to the volume of adrenaline they produce (under a milliliter) it might be the most expensive fluid on earth. If you recognized more than two of those names, you might be a speed junkie candidate too.

And there is a downside to going fast. Things that are simple bumps in the road (or water or air) can change into life-threatening obstacles when taken at twice the normal speed. If 60 mph is 88 feet per second, then 90 mph is 132feet per second.

I went to school in Montana during the days when there was no speed limit there. Of course that same dented up squirrelmobile with it’s carbureted 1300 cc engine and 4- speed stick shift couldn’t pull my truck over 70 anyway. But years later on an R1200GS motorcycle which incidentally had over 2X the horsepower of the old truck, I was wicking it up along the remote two lane Highway 17 that crosses the Continental Divide between Babb and Browning, Montana.

Narrow but twisty with spectacular views. Bingo, here come the flashing red and blue lights! WTF? There is no kind of cussing like inside the helmet cussing! He had me. The officer was nice and said he clocked me at 73 in a 70 zone. WTF again?? And now I am thinking I can beat this by challenging the error margin but return to Montana to challenge it? Apparently, Montana had discovered speed limits in the 40 years I had been away. As philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote “Hell is the truth learnt too late”.

Then the State Trooper, who was about half my age, said “I am just giving you a warning but the real reason I pulled you over is I think I know what you are getting ready to do. . .” (Ummm . . . was it that apparent? ) “. . . and you need to know there is a band of horses loose on the first meadow curve past the Divide.” Oh, thanks. As I took the ticket from him he added “The curves are all clear of gravel until you get a mile or two outside of Babb- be careful, you were warned, I don’t want to be scraping you off the pavement.” And he was right; the horses were all over the middle of the road! This was the era I wanted a radar detector badly but they are illegal in many states, and they seem to really set off cops when they see them.

While in the middle of a hurried career with kids doing sports, music, and sleep overs, I fed the photo radar machines about a hundred dollars a year for a decade during which I considered them a tax on making up time. That is not the best way to live and the worst is, the photos couldn’t be pawned off on my wife since she only drives 4 wheels. Now, as a retiree, those charges have melted away, I am rediscovering the art of going slowly most of the time and reserving my chances, petrol, and tickets for serious sporting riding where I will pay the fees for such “performance awards” if required.

Furthermore, there is a new way of thinking about tickets and that beating the radar is a new challenge, sort of like another curve or washboard to accommodate. Losing to the radar waves is only painful to one’s wallet, not the body and really now, without some reasonable checks on speed, I would likely hurt myself.

One of my graduate students studied compliance in response to enforcement effort. He was looking at lying and cheating anglers but the findings applied pretty well to speed enforcement too. There were there primary deterrents to our willingness to break laws: (1) Size of the fine, (2) perceived chance of being caught, and (3) the immediacy of the punishment.

The key word there is “perceived” chance of being caught. It takes a surprising small exposure to enforcement agents to twig our conscience and make us behave. Cops know that cars seeing a speeder pulled over slows traffic down as a visual reminder. In fact, an empty parked cop car on the side of the road will deter unthinking speeders for some miles after seeing it. Hidden radar stake-outs work best when invisible to oncoming drivers and highly visible once the driver is well within radar range. Enforcement and deterrence come from the same emplacement.

I have tricked myself another way too; a motorcycle that feels like it is really hauling by the time I hit 50 mph is a very good thing — all the thrill, minimal speed. My previous bikes with smooth engines, big fairings and excellent seats didn’t feel like they were doing any kind of hustle until one was bumping triple digits.

It is easy to hate speed enforcement. Often, the posted limit is overly prudent and suspicions of LEOs harvesting cash from non-residents is common. Furthermore, context is important; If I can safely and legally drive 45 mph on ice-covered curves at night in deer country why should I suddenly become a ticket-worthy risk by driving that same stretch at 55 on a summer afternoon? It makes no sense.

Still, it is a game we have to play. Three years without a ticket and counting, now would someone please tell the deer to back off too?

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Lee Foote

Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.