A quick, fleeting feeling of panic comes over me for that split second of deciding whether to slam on the brakes or gun it when coming up to a light just turning yellow and being unsure of my exact distance from the light. I like to think that this is something that most people also deal with, but I think my awareness of this predicament has been heightened by my first time being pulled over – which also happened to be before I even had my license.
It was a snowy, icy night and I was driving cautiously with my mom occasionally giving me driving tips. Coming off of a bridge over interstate 94, the light turned yellow at that elusive distance. I decided to stop because I was an unsure 15 year old with only a permit. That conservative decision led to getting no traction and sliding towards the intersection. Talk about a moment of horror.
My mom let out a, “Go!” She insists she didn’t say this or that she simply meant to make a decision and stick with it, but I still stand by my hearing her encouragement to try and beat the light like The Fast and The Furious.
I switched my foot from the brake to the gas pedal to push my luck with the light, but I figured that decision was less risky than sliding into the middle of the intersection with zero control of my car and being crushed from whichever cars came through it next.
Apparently my reflexes were not as quick as I hoped they would be, and I crossed the line right as the light turned red. Normally this wouldn’t have been that big of a deal, except that a cop happened to be waiting at the intersection.
Seeing the flashing lights in my rearview mirror caused terror to course through me and I immediately jumped to the worst possible outcomes in my mind. The only good thing about being pulled over when you have your permit is that your mom does basically all the talking to the cop. My mom covered for me a little by saying, “I was going to yell at her for doing that, but I wanted to wait until we got home so I didn’t distract her while she was driving.”
The cop was quite gracious, and gave me advice like, “Remember yellow means slow down, not speed up,” and “Yellow lights are 1/10 the time of the speed limit, so 30 mph zones have three second yellow lights.” Although the first tip is still somewhat relevant in my more experienced driving career, the second one has been more helpful in deciding whether to stop or go.
I’ve gotten much better at making yellow light decisions – despite the random times I still feel that flash of nerves – but I’m reminded of my brush with the law every time I have a narrow escape through a yellow light intersection, especially the one I committed my crime in.
First time being pulled over
The first (and only) time I got pulled over was before I had my license. I was a fresh 15-year-old who studied for five hours to pass my permit test.
I drove too slow, turned the radio down all the way and clenched my fist around the wheel until my fingers cramped. The driver’s education videos made me believe that if I did anything differently, I’d become a bloody teenager lying on the pavement with a sheet across my body.
My mom was a scatter-brained, crazy-haired woman who had four kids to take care of — one of whom was born the day I got my permit. Needless to say, she didn’t pay much attention to how I drove. While my friends told stories about their mothers having heart attacks in the passenger seat, my mom sat on her phone — seat reclined, eyes half-open. My permit was her excuse to take a break.
So when I drove home from my basketball practice without the headlights on, she didn’t notice.
The cop walked up to my window and pointed a flashlight in my face before aiming it at my mom. Like most people, he thought we were sisters. She’s only seventeen years older than me, and her small figure and smooth skin makes the gap look even smaller.
“Have you two been drinking? Your headlights aren’t on and you’ve been swerving all over.”
I couldn’t respond. My mom pursed her lips to keep from laughing. She explained to the cop with crinkled eyes: I had my permit, she was my mom, and it won’t happen again.
She laughed until we pulled into the driveway. I cried.
I’ve never gotten pulled over since.