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This time last year, I was anxious to put as much pavement between me and the twisted scene I’d left at my house a few hours earlier. I had returned to pick up my dog and a few vital items, not intending to encounter my not-soon-enough-ex-husband and his brand new, fifteen-years-younger girlfriend.
Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, dramatic interludes between adults don’t often happen in real life. I didn’t cry or scream or boil a bunny. I took a breath, reached out my hand, and welcomed her to my house and to my bed, and then I left. She thanked me for being so kind.
Then I got in my car and drove north 600 miles to see my parents. Six hours later I’d almost made it to the northern edge of Massachusetts. The sun was going down and I reached down to answer a phone call. I wore earbuds and took my eyes off the road for a second. The next thing I knew, blue and red lights lit up my rearview window. The trooper asked if I knew why he’d pulled me over.
I hate that question. He looked at me for a minute, a glimmer of a smile crossing his face.
“I pulled you over because you were speeding in a construction zone.”
It’s no secret that small towns, municipalities, and even states make money off traffic and parking violations. While quotas are technically illegal in most states and a dirty word in the police community, it’s also true there are places where “secret” ticket quotas are in place. One cost the City of Los Angeles more than $10 million in a 2013 lawsuit.
Quotas are a source of agitation for many—sometimes causing judges, like one in Texas, to quit in disgust—and creating headaches for drivers across the country. As a result of these quotas some officers are required to have a specific number of “citizen contacts” within a set period of time. This results in cops going after speeders more frequently than they might have in order to meet those numbers and, in turn, earn more overtime.
Before they pull you over, most officers have already decided whether they’re issuing you a ticket.
Because police departments often deploy more road blocks and checks around the big holidays like Christmas, July 4th, or Memorial Day, they are far more likely to generate big ticket revenues than other times of year. Like any other working stiff on a holiday, cops are in bad moods because they have to work, meaning they’re less likely to let you off with a warning if you’re behaving particularly badly.
Many municipalities don’t report the number of tickets they issue per year, but estimates range anywhere from 25 million to 50 million annually. Your chances are somewhere between 1 in 8 and 1 in 4 of getting a ticket in any given year.
So when the long arm of traffic laws grabs you, is there any surefire way of convincing it to loosen its grip? Not really. Before they pull you over, most officers have already decided whether they’re issuing you a ticket based on a shifting (and often subconscious) set of factors: Are you a man or a woman? What race are you? How egregious was your violation? What kind of car are you driving?
There are, however, a few things you can do to increase your chances of slipping that ticket with a verbal warning.
1. Be honest—sort of. I admitted that I had reached down and fiddled with my phone because that’s what I had done, and it may have softened the cop’s attitude toward me at the time. Being an adult and owning up to your mistakes can take you a long way down path of goodwill.
2. Never admit to speeding. You’re giving the officer ammunition to use against you and that’s never a good idea.
3. Be respectful. These people are out doing their job and keeping you and yours safe. Consider this: If someone came into your place of work and started swearing at you and threatening you, how likely would you be to just let it slide? Just hold your tongue and use the manners your parents taught you—Please and Thank You, Sir or Ma’am. Driving is a privilege, not a right. Treat it thus.
4. Skip the theatrics. Don’t cry. Really. Crying rarely wins people’s sympathy and when you are number 400 of the 1,000 people this officer is going to pull over this year, they’ve heard and seen it all. Just don’t.
5. They don’t care if you’re important. “Do you know who I am?” never works. No one cares, least of all cops. It’s just going to piss the them off, and unless you are in the same municipality as your aunt or uncle or brother’s sister’s half-cousin, don’t pull the “my fill-in-the-blank is on the force.” The cop won’t know them and won’t care.
6. No sudden moves. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that violence between cops and citizens has been on the uptick. If you’re scared when you get pulled over, the officer is likely uncertain, too. Keep your hands in plain sight, and ask permission to get your documents out. Don’t make any sudden or threatening movements and keep the officer informed of what you are doing as you go through the process.
The policeman who pulled me over in Massachusetts looked through my back window, at my dog as she barked. At the evidence of my hurried getaway, strewn all over the inside of my car—mail, important documents, purses, some jewelry, a few sweaters—things I didn’t want my ex-husband and his girlfriend to get their grubby hands on or conveniently remove.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To Maine to see my family,” I told him.
“Have you ever been pulled over before?”
“Yes. Once in Connecticut and once in New York. Both were a really long time ago.”
He looked at me again through the window as I handed him my license and registration and headed back to his unmarked Ford Explorer. I sat and shook and waited.
“You’re right,” He said when he came back. “You haven’t had a ticket at all. Nothing shows up. I can’t have your very first ticket be for speeding in a construction zone. It’s triple the fine here in Massachusetts and it would kill your record.”
He handed my documents back to me and smiled. “I’m giving you a verbal warning. Just be careful of the construction zones. There are about three between here and the New Hampshire Liquor Store at the state line. Just slow down. Oh—and only use one earbud. It’s illegal to have both in while driving in Massachusetts. Happy Thanksgiving.”
With that, he turned and walked away.
Sometimes the best way to get out of a ticket is to have everything else fall apart.
Abigail Bassett is a producer, consultant, and automotive journalist based in Austin, Texas. She prefers her bunny slow-roasted with a pinch of fleur de sel.