Ticketless Travel

A Friendly Police Officer Offers Motorcycle Cruiser Readers Some Do's And Don'ts Of Avoiding The Dreaded Traffic Citation

So there you are, enjoying a great ride on your bike, breeze in your face, when suddenly a good day turns bad. You hear the yelp of a siren, and your heart sinks as you look to find the flashing lights in your mirrors. You pull over, wondering, perhaps, what you did and how much this stop is going to cost you. Depending on the infraction, the cost could be significant. If you are guilty of some serious offense, like excessive speed, you may even get arrested, be taken before the magistrate, make new friends at the local bonding agency and meet some of your community's finer denizens in the local lockup. Even for more benign stops, there can still be some steep expenses. There's the fine itself and the likely multiyear northward bump in your insurance premiums. But wait, there's more: You may be required to come to court and burn a vacation day in the process.

As a longtime motorcyclist and a cop who's written his fair share of tickets, here are a few thoughts from behind the mirrored sunglasses that may help you avoid an unwelcome encounter with the boys (and girls) in blue. This is a difficult discussion because the relationship between motorcyclists and police is, and must be, at best, difficult. After all, each group's goals are mutually exclusive. Motorcyclists are all about independence, and they willingly deal with the inherent risks on the road to enjoy their passion. On the other hand, police enforce conformity-in this case, the rules of the road-and the controlling of risk.

Still, there are some things that can override this tension and work to your benefit. First off, and this may seem obvious, don't get my attention. Don't be zealous about breaking the law. Stay off my radar, both literally and figuratively. Based on a jurisdiction's population density, your average cop may see thousands of vehicles during a day's tour of duty. Your goal, simply, is to avoid standing out. Be invisible, and let me nab the other guy.

How do you avoid this unwanted attention? First, and obviously, don't break the law too egregiously. Remember that traffic enforcement is a major source of income for any jurisdiction, but this income is even more important for smaller jurisdictions and those without a large tax base. In other words, tickets are the bread and butter of many rural jurisdictions, the very places where one finds the twisty roads and great scenery so loved by riders.

Generally, if the weather and road conditions are good, I'll give a rider 10 mph over the posted limit because I recognize that bikes are more maneuverable than cars (and because I'm basically a nice guy). However, speed in a school zone, weave in and out of traffic, pop a wheelie or do a burnout, and I'll be meeting you on the side of the road.

Now for a few things beyond the obvious. Picture me, sitting in my air-conditioned cruiser, eating a cream-filled doughnut and doing my damnedest to keep powdered sugar off my uniform. All of a sudden, you go screaming by me with pipes loud enough to rattle my fillings. You just got my attention. Or maybe your helmet or T-shirt features obscenities. I've just become interested in you. Or that turtle helmet doesn't look like it meets code. Again, you just got my attention. You're riding in the left lane. I'm interested. Your headlight is burned out, you fail to signal a turn, you flip off a motorist, you're wearing shorts and sandals...you get the picture. What you don't want to have is my attention.

At night, there's an additional dynamic at work. After dark, and especially between the hours of 1 and 5 A.M., most cops assume that unless you're going to or coming from work, you're probably up to no good. It may sound unfair, but arrest statistics and experience say we're right. We're interested in everyone on the road at these hours, and doubly so if there's a bar nearby.

Remember my 10 mph over the limit generosity? Forget about it at night. And sometimes, after seeing only two or three vehicles go by in the wee hours of the morning, I get bored. In this instance, go just 7 or 8 mph over the limit, and I may light you up, if only to give myself something to do to pass the time faster.

All of this useful perspective aside, let's say you do see my dreaded flashing lights behind you. Now what? You've already failed in your efforts to avoid my attention, so let's see if you can make it one out of two. Your new goal is to make me comfortable. Remember, more officers die conducting traffic stops than in any other activity, so there's no such thing as a "routine traffic stop." Every officer approaching you, especially at night, will be thinking about what to do if the stop goes bad. Even though he knows your bad-boy biker image is probably cultivated, his hand is probably resting on his pistol.

So how do you put me at ease? First, let's consider some things not to do. Don't point to a sticker saying you support law enforcement. Those don't count for squat. After all, your fines do support law enforcement, so why are you complaining? And don't make jokes or excuses. I am not amused if you ask me to hold your beer while you search for your license, or you tell me there's no way you could have been doing 90 because your recently calibrated speedometer only indicated 85. The following, however, will help. Pull over to an area that's safe for both of us. Take off your helmet and your shades. We are trained to watch your eyes for our safety, and we get nervous if we can't see them. Most important: Do Not Get Off Your Bike. Keep your hands on the handlebars and let me come to you. If you get off your bike and approach me, I must assume, for my safety, that you may have running or (worse yet) fighting on your mind. And if I feel threatened, I'll be unsnapping my holster. At the very least, you've just made me disinclined to cut you a break.

Carry all your paperwork in a place that's readily available and accessible. If you make me stand around while you fumble through all your stuff looking for your registration, you're getting a ticket. If these documents are in a pocket, tell me which pocket and ask my permission to reach into it. By the way, I recognize that huge folding knives with pocket clips seem to be an essential fashion accessory for many riders, but they make me nervous. They are useless when you're riding anyway and can easily be stored in a saddlebag or interior pocket until they're needed. Another word to the wise: If you're riding with a few buddies, tell them to continue on their way and you'll meet them down the road. I don't like to be outnumbered.

A few words about attitude. A traffic stop is not personal. I'm just out there doing my job. I can give you a ticket while also recognizing you're a good and decent person. You don't have to "sir" me to death; just be pleasant and courteous. If you think I've made a mistake or am being unfair, go to court and tell the judge. The side of the road is no place to argue about a ticket. Frankly, if you bust my chops, I'm going to stroke you for every violation I can find, and I can find a lot: defective equipment, unapproved equipment, tire-tread depth, headlight alignment, leaking fluids, the location and visibility of your stickers, volume of your pipes, etc. And whatever you do, don't suggest I stopped you because I have to fill a quota. I have no quotas; I'm allowed to write as many or as few tickets as I want.

If you do get pulled over, try to make my traffic stop safe and pleasant, and I may give you a warning. Even if I issue a citation, I may write you for failure to obey a highway sign, which carries a smaller fine and fewer points than speeding or blowing through a stop sign. I have discretion on how I deal with you, and it's your goal to encourage me to exercise this discretion to your benefit.

Finally, I always advise people to go to court rather than pay their fine by mail. If your driving record isn't too hideous, the prosecutor may allow you to plead to a lesser offense or allow you to avoid a conviction by attending a driver's school. If you were courteous to me, and cops remember because we make notes about such things on our copies of the tickets as you're driving away cursing us, I may go to bat for you with the prosecutor.

There you have it. Get out there, ride safely and have fun. I have indeed met the nicest people on Hondas... and Harleys, and Suzukis, and BMWs, and Kawasakis and Yamahas. Hopefully, when I meet you, it will be at the doughnut shop and not on the side of the road.