In hindsight, it was a bad idea to go flat out in a red Camaro convertible on the Tail of the Dragon, a road in North Carolina known for two things: spectacular curves, and the heaviest police presence this side of a G8 summit.
Now I was snared. Blue lights were flashing, and a state trooper was scrutinizing my Canadian license. "What are you doing down here?" he asked. "You were going pretty quick."
The trooper had several choices - writing a big ticket, throwing me in jail, or letting me go. I had no idea whether he'd clocked me on radar.
"I'm here to write about North Carolina," I told him.
"Write what?" he asked.
"Just went to see Junior Johnson," I told him. The trooper's eyebrows went up, and I sensed that the calculus of our brief relationship had suddenly shifted. If there's anyone who can get you out of a North Carolina traffic bust, it's Junior Johnson, the patron saint of speeding.
Junior started out as a moonshine runner who drove for his daddy (one of the state's biggest copper-still operators) and become a legendary stock car racer. He was immortalized in a Tom Wolfe story called The Last American Hero, and there's a highway named after him. At 79, Junior is a high-speed southern Jesus who embodies the spirit of rural North Carolina - humble, decent, and hellishly fast on a back road.
"You were up with Junior?" the trooper asked. I asked him if he wanted to see the pictures, which were in my laptop. He did. Five minutes later, we shook hands and parted ways. No ticket. The long arm of Junior Johnson had saved me.
There are numerous theories about how to beat a speeding ticket. The best method, of course, is not to speed. The second-best is to not get caught.
If you look in the back of car magazines, you'll find ads for radar jammers, miracle cloakers and special coatings that make your plate unreadable. (If you decide to give them a try, let me know - you do get to use the phone in prison.) The surest defence is a radar detector, but they're illegal in Canada. That doesn't stop some people from trying.
I heard about an Ontario Porsche driver who spent $5,000 installing a covert detector - the sensor was hidden behind his front bumper, and the unit itself was buried deep in the guts of his car. (He turned it on and off with the fan switch.) He avoided a few tickets, but then met a cop who was sure he had a hidden detector, and had the car torn apart to find it.
That brings us to the third-best method - talking your way out of the ticket.
There are numerous approaches. Unfortunately, most of them don't work. I knew a guy who tried to get out of a ticket by telling the officer that he'd been caught going much faster the day before. The cop wrote him a speeding ticket and cited him for having an illegal exhaust system and windows that were tinted too dark.
There are a series of psychological gambits that may be employed in a traffic stop. A female acquaintance has beaten several tickets by crying. Another friend swears by a stonewall system that reminds me of the one employed by former prime minister Brian Mulroney at the Schreiber commission. When the police officer asks him if he knows why he got stopped, my friend's answer is always the same: "I have no idea, officer."
He explained his logic: If you acknowledge that you were over the limit, you've confessed to the crime. Back in my twenties, I actually tried my friend's approach a few times. It didn't work. When I told an officer I couldn't understand why he'd stopped me, he gave me a roadside sobriety test. On another stop, I tried to play roadside lawyer, and questioned the accuracy of the officer's radar gun. He walked back to his car and wrote me a ticket. Another time, I tried to argue that the radar gun was probably reading the truck behind me. The police officer listened politely for a minute. Then he wrote the ticket.
There may be drivers who can pull off the bluff. Not me. As a traffic stop liar, I am an abject failure. My guilt plays across my face. It is an albatross, hung from my neck. It's the elephant in the car. So I am forced to go the honesty route, which is probably a terrible idea. But it occasionally works.
Like it did back in the 1990s, when I got stopped doing 110 mph on a deserted road near Nag's Head, N.C.
The police officer came to my window red-faced with fury. I was the Charles Manson of speeders, caught dead to rights at almost twice the speed limit. I told the officer my situation: my best friend was getting married in 15 minutes. I had missed a plane that morning for the only time in my life, because I had just returned from the Gulf War. This sounded far-fetched, and I realized I might be heading for a jail cell. Fortunately, I had a copy of the newspaper with my story on the front page, plus a wedding invitation. The officer got back in his car and escorted me to the church, lights flashing.
Since then, there have been only four traffic stops. Two of the officers let me go with a warning. The other two wrote the ticket. So the honesty model works at least half the time.
A few years ago, I spent a day riding along with an OPP officer who spent years patrolling Highway 400, a road that runs from Toronto to Barrie. He taught me what the police are looking for - cars that are markedly out of step with the traffic flow, and drivers who are more than 15 per cent above the posted limit.
Ever since, I have made a point of going with the traffic flow, and using cruise control to ensure that I'm within the 15 per cent margin. When I speed in earnest, it's on racetracks or deserted back roads. But when you drive as many fast cars as I do, temptation is your constant companion.
So there I was, deep in the mountains of North Carolina in a brand-new Camaro. It was early morning, the road was empty, and a long, sweeping curve lay before me. The Gods of speed were calling me. Now the blue lights were flashing in my mirror.
That's when it's good to know Junior Johnson.
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