January 2011

They call it a courtesy

By David Feela

Recently, a Colorado Highway Patrol trooper pulled me over, or maybe it would be more precise to say, I made room for him on the shoulder. I had driven barely a quarter-mile from my house at a breakneck speed of 25 mph, preparing to travel on Highway 491.

I knew immediately what I had done: I’d failed to come to a complete stop at the sign before entering the highway, but rather than meditate on my crime, I recalled an old joke about a man who, upon hearing that most accidents occur within 25 miles of home, decided to move.

I’m not saying the trooper was wrong. I’m not even saying I had an excuse, though my brain worked very quickly trying to think one up. Rather, I was a victim of bad timing, a cosmic offense for which the universe is routinely punishing me.

The officer must have blessed his perfect day — I was waiting on the shoulder even before he got around to turning his lights on.

Nobody wants to hear my explanation, though the officer involved was obliged to listen to it, because he foolishly asked the question, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Since he had to listen, so do you.

My county road climbs an embankment to meet the highway, leaving me on an incline where the stop sign has been planted. When the road is covered by snow or ice, my wheels spin and the car slides backward if I come to a full stop. In bad weather I usually creep up the slope and past the stop sign, pulling immediately to the shoulder, and from that position I wait for my best chance at merging with highway traffic.

On this particular day the snow and ice had thawed, but my habit of creeping past the stop sign stayed firm. That’s the way it goes with habits, and why people habitually call them by that name.

I offered my license, registration, and proof of insurance. I stayed calm. I remained polite. After instructing me to stay in my car, he went back to his.

I sat like an accused man for over 20 minutes. No doubt he called my numbers in, waiting for a report on my criminal history.           

I kept glancing at the mirror, trying to figure out what could be taking so long. I had no outstanding warrants, no expired or improperly executed paperwork. I was an unwanted man.

I’d rather have been talking with the trooper about the drivers that use the shoulder to recklessly pass me while I’m waiting to make a left turn off the same highway.

It happens a couple times a week, sometimes more. A vehicle blows past me on the shoulder at 65 mph, a gust of wind that rocks my little car and feeds images of twisted pretzels through my brain. But the officer was busy doing his paperwork. I had to wait.

If you, too, are waiting, perhaps for this paragraph to end, may I take a moment of your time to ask you, please, to use a little caution and patience. Slow down — even come to a full stop if you have to. Let the poor fellow in front of you make his left turn. Don’t use the shoulder to pass a vehicle that’s signaling a left turn.

I know. I used to do that too.

In the end, I received a courtesy warning, the kind of citation that says, We noticed you driving a little dangerously but we’re going to give you a second chance. I was relieved.

All the way into town I vowed to stop completely at each and every stop sign. And I did. And I do. Courtesy warnings have that effect: They reward you for your patience.

You can go now.

David Feela resides in Montezuma County, Colo.