Off piste: Persistence pays...

...or, why cars have speedometers. 'Persistent violator' Lou Marinoff on nirvana in the fast lane, governmental highway robbery and the dazzlingly effective absent-minded-professor defence

April 1, 2010

At a recent dinner party, conversation drifted from the known to the unknown, and on to unknowables such as death. On that grave note, my friend and colleague Michael Grosso ventured one of the nicest things that anyone has ever said about me, at least in my presence.

"If you want to overcome your fear of death," he said, "take a drive with Lou."

How inspiring! For a fleeting moment I envisioned opening a new kind of driving school. The basic course, Overcoming your fear of death, could be followed by an intermediate course, Overcoming your fear of traffic court, culminating in the advanced course, Losing your driving licence in under one hour (with a money-back guarantee). The possibilities seemed endless.

During youthful escapades behind the wheel in decades long past, I was able to help people overcome quite a few inhibitions, not limited to encounters with the Grim Reaper or Big Brother. Admittedly I exercise no monopoly on this gift. Another friend of mine, who is utterly unafraid to drive with me, and sometimes even enjoys it, once took a spin with Stirling Moss through the English countryside. His knuckles remained white for months thereafter.

My view of driving was formed during the late 1960s, when "muscle cars" were all the rage, when urban roads were streaked with rubber strips, when green lights signalled roaring engines and squealing tyres of street-racing speed demons, when high-octane petrol was cheaper than low-fat milk, when highways were free and wide open and radar traps were few and far between. In those days boys were boys, cars were cars and speed limits were optional.

Times have changed. The open road still beckons, but good luck finding it. Cities and ring roads and interstate throughways are all clogged with traffic, seemingly around the clock. But if you pick the right stretch of highway at the right time of day or night, you can still experience brief surges of adrenalin and fleeting instants of exhilarating freedom, which more cerebral or sedentary souls may easily confound with impending fatality.

Yet time slows us all down, and my road-racing days are but pleasant memories. I too have become more sedate, mellowed by age and sobered by maturity. No more Mustang 351s, Camaro Z28s, Roadrunner 383s, Plymouth GTXs or Shelby Cobras for the likes of me. Nowadays I potter about in a Jaguar S-type, a senior citizen's version of muscle cars past. Yet the Jag has power aplenty, zigzags around slow-moving traffic like a slalom skier around flags, hugs curves like a motorcycle, handles like a dream, and pulls Gs like a rocket sledge. So once in a while I find some open road and hit it.

They say that life begins at 40 (or 50, or whatever age you fancy), but for me it really begins at 100. That is, 100 miles per hour. Once you "turn a ton" you're in another world. The scenery flashes by a lot faster, but everything else decelerates. It becomes strangely still, and you feel a floating sensation. The Jag's speedometer needle leaps to the occasion; the engine purrs contentedly as its power is finally unleashed. You accelerate smoothly to 120, 130 and beyond; you feel like the USS Enterprise engaging warp drive. The landscape becomes a streak; the road unravels like a ribbon; the car glides as if on air; if she had wings you'd lift off. The mind is calm, unruffled, yet utterly ecstatic. You experience a thrill, a joy, a rush of delight at being alive - and then you simply merge with everything. Car, highway, driver: all are one. This is nirvana, my friends. Some attain it by sitting; others, by chanting; folks such as me (and maybe you) by taking the road more swiftly travelled.

Until you go through a radar trap. Nirvana's bubble burst, you confront samsara in the form of an over-polite state trooper who asks if you know why you've been pulled over. "For pleasing my Maker, by doing as He intended when He created me" will not count against you as an answer, but it will cut no ice in traffic court. Believe me, I know. I get pulled over a lot, and not just for speeding. To begin with, the Jag looks like she's moving too fast even when parked at the kerb. But it's not my car; rather, my karma. Wherever I drive, at whatever speed, in whatever conveyance, cops take one look at me and pull me over.

In the old days it made no difference. You paid your fine in cash, and simply moved on. But nowadays, state troopers ambush citizens on every stretch of highway, and at all hours. Traffic courts still fly the Stars and Stripes behind the judge's chair, but alongside the motto "In God we trust", you'll now see prominent Visa and MasterCard logos. Traffic courts are open for business. Every single moving vehicle infraction comes bundled with points on your licence, and Big Brother assiduously reads your record. As soon as they see points, insurance companies inflate your premiums; motor vehicle departments levy special surcharges; you are commanded to attend "defensive driving" courses.

If you are a high achiever and earn enough points - 10 or 12 within 18 months will normally do the trick - the state pretends to suspend your licence, so it can charge you extra fees to reinstate it. My favourite "point man" is a fellow named Moe Sihota, who in the 1990s was a minister in the British Columbia government. His responsibilities included the crown corporation responsible for driver licensing, vehicle licensing and motor insurance. But Flyin' Moe, as he was known, had to resign his post when it came to light that he had earned 21 demerit points on his licence. How asinine, I thought. This guy obviously knows how to get where he's going, and behind the wheel at that. So he's exactly the kind of person you'd want looking after transport-related matters. Why is the world so profoundly irrational? (I have answered that question too, in a novel that publishers have yet to overcome their fears of printing.)

If you drive in the US, you'll encounter a minefield of dangerous or oblivious driving behaviours for which people never get stopped. You'll see them driving Ford Glaciers or Toyota Impediments well under the speed limit in the passing lane, often with mobile phones surgically attached to their ears, forcing other drivers to pass them on the wrong side. And when you do that, they'll give you "the finger" to prove...well, I'm not quite sure what. I have often wanted to ask such drivers whether they are professionally obtuse, or merely talented hobbyists.

You'll see others in Hyundai Behemoths, tailgating at cruising speed in heavy traffic. Just try maintaining a safe distance between yourself and the vehicle in front of you, and some yahoo in a Nissan Neanderthal will happily plug the gap, leaving 1 foot of wiggle room at 65 miles per hour.

You can easily get stranded on any highway entrance ramp behind some well-meaning but chronically unassertive driver, trying tentatively to merge his Buick Brontosaurus into flowing highway traffic at 10 miles per hour, forcing the faster-moving vehicles to swerve around him (or dare I say her) into the oblivious pack that's clogging the passing lane. Now that's truly hazardous! But when I see it coming and blow by the Brontosaurus in the breakdown lane, surging clear of all danger, I get stopped by a cop and cited for "reckless lane change". When did they make Franz Kafka Minister of Transport?

Add one-quarter of an inch of snow to this mix, combined with no laws against not using snow tyres in winter ("My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty..."), and the roads become festooned with upside-down SUVs, stranded on their backs like turtles in a tidal surge.

So bring on the over-polite state trooper: "Do you know why I pulled you over?"

"Yes, because you're a highway robber evidently preying on anyone who isn't a card-carrying imbecile."

Fortunately, at least in theory, for every injustice there's a remedy. The remedy against literal highway robbery by states, and the taxation without representation they impose, is no secret in the US: hire an attorney. Once you do this, you will suddenly be treated like an innocent citizen who has been apprehended in a case of mistaken identity: they were looking for suckers without lawyers, whom they can fleece with impunity.

But I didn't know this at first. Living dreamily in the past, I simply paid the fines by mail, until one fine day I got a notice saying that my driving licence had been suspended, and that the Department of Motor Vehicles had now classified me as a "Persistent Violator". That's not as bad as it sounds. From earliest youth, I had been taught to persist, and moreover to persevere. I had been told time and again that "perseverance pays". And now I discovered that her sibling, persistence, likewise pays. That is, pays an impressive array of fines to a bottomless pit of purblind bureaucracies.

So I made my confession to Big Brother: yes, I am a Persistent Violator; that is, of the notion that the state has any business regulating anyone's speed on a wide-open road. I am a Persistent Violator of the notion that all kinds of hazardous and oblivious driving behaviours should be tolerated, just because they can't be measured with radar. And I am a Persistent Violator of the notion that calling anyone a "Persistent Violator" will make the roads safer for anybody.

I observe posted speed limits wherever they make sense - in school zones, hospital zones and the like. In more than four decades of driving, I have never harmed, injured or killed a single person. On the contrary, I have helped many overcome their fears of death, among other inhibitions. My sole vehicular accident occurred at under 10 miles per hour, a speed at which I am clearly a threat behind the wheel. But the faster I go, the safer I get. Having confessed, I hired a succession of traffic attorneys, whose persistence swiftly paid.

By means of their art, attorneys routinely reduce moving violations to mere parking infractions. They cut these deals with cops or prosecutors, which then must be approved by the judge. This is the dicey bit, because the judge is looking at your driving record, and must be seen to be doing justice. My attorneys always tell me: "When we come before the judge, keep quiet and let me do the talking." Since I am paying them to tell me this, I shut up and listen.

I remember one case when a judge had almost bought the deal, but then happened to glance at my transcript. I could see the oversized red letters stencilled across the top: PERSISTENT VIOLATOR. The transcript itself was too thick by half. His Honour looked searchingly into space for a moment, then asked my attorney: "Mr Voodoo, doesn't your firm contribute to our town's Little League baseball fund every year?"

"Yes, your Honour. And we also coach one of the teams."

"Then I accept your client's plea of guilty to parking on pavement. Next case."

One has to admire the even-handedness, if not the genius, of American justice. Having reduced everything to a commodity, Americans get pretty much what they pay for. And sometimes you even get what someone else has paid for.

The late, great Erich Oboda was the most mesmerising traffic-court lawyer I have ever seen: the Clarence Darrow of moving violations. He cut the usual deal with the cop, then emerged and reminded me to keep my mouth firmly shut once we came before the judge. Her Honour, a rather stern-looking woman, seemed less than enamoured of men, and speed alike. When our case was called, Oboda made his serendipitous pitch.

"Your Honour," my miracle-working attorney began, in a honeyed tone that immediately elicited her sympathy, "take a look at my client...He's an absent-minded professor, if ever there was one."

By luck, I was perfectly attired for the role: faded tweed jacket with suede elbow patches, crumpled corduroy pants and suitably ill-matching accessories. I did my best to appear as absent as possible.

"He's a harmless, absent-minded professor, Your Honour," my wizard-attorney continued, "and sometimes he simply has no idea what speed he's driving at."

I strove to look like someone with no idea of speed, someone who barely grasped that he was in a traffic court (while doing my best not to burst out laughing). Under the spell of this snake-charming attorney, the judge bought his preposterous story - the "absent-minded professor" defence. She actually felt sorry for me.

"Explain to your client why his car has a speedometer," she replied. "I accept his plea of guilty to parking on pavement. Next case."

And so I am a Persistent Violator no more. I am instead an absent-minded professor, who has finally learned why his car has a speedometer. My friends no longer say nice things about me, at least in my presence. They no longer claim that driving with me will help you overcome your fear of death. But all is not lost. Perhaps I can help you overcome your reluctance to persist.

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