The flashing blue lights suddenly filled the inside of my car. Surely the police car behind me wasn’t stopping me. I was the only car on the road but still, what just happened? I was pulling out of the metro parking lot at 8:30 pm on a Friday night, a time when people are either relaxing at home or beginning to release the stress of the week at their local restaurant/bar. I was coming home from an all-day staff retreat. All I really remember thinking about at that hour was what was I going to have for dinner. The day’s food choices had been very limited for me given that retreat food is the exact opposite of gluten-free. At 8:30 pm I was going through a mental inventory of my fridge and wondering if Chipotle was open at this hour when the police car snuck up behind me. To eliminate all doubt that the pretty blue lights were just for me, the police siren whooped once.
The officer said that I had not come to a full stop. Knowing that there isn’t a stop sign between the corner and where I was, I wondered what he was referring to. Then he said, “You know there is a ‘No Turn on Red’ sign back there.” I agreed. It is there and has been there forever and I know the sign well because the light is almost always red and on occasion I have had someone behind me honking because they have not read the sign or just like the sound of their horn. My work day is framed by these “No Turn on Red” intersections. There is one near my house that I wait for to turn green every morning before I go to work, and this one at the train station, that I also wait for every afternoon when I am coming home. Having agreed with the officer about the sign’s existence, I handed him my license and automatically assumed I was guilty of running the red light.
After the officer gave me the ticket, I pulled off to go home. I had lost my appetite, not because this was the first time I had gotten a ticket, but because something felt wrong. I have gotten two speeding tickets in my life. When my parents lived in New Jersey I would drive up to see them for the weekend. When I was given those tickets, I was very clear about what I had done to earn the ticket. But, on this Friday night, I am 95 percent certain that I did not run a red light. My certainty comes from knowing my driving habits. I am the type of driver who slows downs and stops at yellow lights due to my fear of intersections. My 5 percent doubt comes from my childhood belief that if any authority figure says I’ve done something wrong, then I must have done something wrong.
I got home and studied the piece of paper the officer had given me. Now I was really baffled. The citation did not say anything about a red light. The officer had written that I had “failed to pay full attention.” WHAT!! Since when are officers armed with attention radar guns? I could understand receiving this citation if I had caused an accident, hit a pedestrian or failed to yield to crossing geese. But, why should I pay a fine for thinking about dinner? The officer never said that I had run a red light I only assumed I did. Was my failure to protest his implied accusation his proof that I had not been paying full attention?
So, for a week I have been trying to will my brain to replay the moment I got to the intersection but I can’t. I clearly remember thinking about Chipotle’s hours and I even remember noticing how full and beautifully bright the moon was when it came into my line of sight. But, I don’t remember the status of the traffic light when I pulled up to it. If the definition of insanity is doing same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, does that mean that I had a moment of sanity? It doesn’t matter, the real question is, should I contest this ticket?
I think that the lesson from all this is that I have to be more aware of my actions. Not only while driving but as I am doing other things that are routine in nature. It’s true that sometimes we go into auto-pilot, and driving the same route every day creates the conditions that cause our brains to tune out. I have not decided if I am going to contest the ticket in court, but for now, the lesson of greater awareness is what I am going to keep and I will (eventually) let go of the blame.