Monday, September 28, 2009

Put your virtual hands where I can see 'em!

I am virtually getting sick of all things virtual.

Sure, 2009 was the year we cut back on doing “real” stuff and explored the benefits of using our computers to do everything. Virtual meetings became hot in the corporate world; my kids began feeding virtual pets via Webkinz; an agent I deal with even hired a virtual assistant who is not only less helpful than a real assistant but twice as annoying.

But I am officially ready to snap now that I have received my first virtual traffic ticket.

I returned home from a business trip last Friday, weary yet anxious about the upcoming weekend. There would be kids’ soccer and volleyball games as well as my 47th birthday celebration. On my desk lay a stack of mail, many items bearing the shape of birthday cards. In the midst of the pile was a legal-sized envelope with a return address that caught my eye: Village of Willowbrook Red Light Photo Enforcement, Norcross, Georgia.

I tore open the envelope and the words leaped off the paper: CITATION. TRAFFIC SIGNAL VIOLATION.

A series of grainy photos accompanied the text. The first showed a line of cars approaching a traffic light in darkness; the second was an even more blurred image of my license plate and the final image seemed to assemble both photos, showing my BMW x5 allegedly entering the intersection and making a left turn. A red blob that could have either been a traffic signal or a UFO hovered just slightly above and to the right of my vehicle.

The Willowbrook Police Department, which incidentally is located in Willowbrook, Illinois, nearly 1000 miles from Norcross, Georgia, clearly believed I ran a red light. This was stated emphatically next to the photos:

Please take notice that the vehicle described and pictured herein did not stop for the red traffic signal at the place, date and time specified. Therefore, under Title 8-11-13 of the Village of Willowbrook Code of Ordinances, as the registered owner of the vehicle, you are liable for the violation. Unless you elect to request an Administrative Hearing, a civil penalty in the amount of $100.00 must be paid by the due date shown on this notice.

I stared at the photos again with the concentration of a paparazzi who has just spied Jennifer Anniston sunbathing. Yes, I recognized the intersection in the first photo – Route 83 and 63rd Avenue, a quarter mile from my health club. Yes, that was my license plate in the second photo. And yes it appeared my car was in the midst of the intersection in the third photo.

Or was it?

Was the light REALLY red? Or was it yellow when I made my move? Did it turn red only when I had nearly finished the turning maneuver? There appeared to be another car ahead of me in the left turn lane. Was this vehicle in violation as well?

What did Norcross Georgia have to do with this incident?

Was there indeed another gunman on the grassy knoll?

Unfortunately I received answers to exactly ZERO of these questions because I was dealing in the virtual world. A camera had snapped the photos and determined that I was in the wrong. As further proof there were numbers and indecipherable codes at the top of each picture that read something like this:

SPc Time Date Code Amb Red Photo Limit Ln
29.0 05:55:29:57 09/17/2009 300 2:90 0:29 818A 45:00 1

In case I needed MORE proof, the citation was actually signed by an actual, or in this case a virtual, police officer:

I am a duly authorized officer by the Village of Willowbrook Police Department. Based on inspection of the recorded images shown above, the motor vehicle was operated in violation of Title 8-11-13 of the Willowbrook Code of the Ordinances, as evidenced by the above images. Sworn to and affirmed by:

I couldn’t read the hen scratching that passed for an electronic signature at the bottom. All I knew was that “Mark” was the officer’s first name.

It appeared Office Mark had busted me. Using all the skills learned at the police academy, he had examined three grainy photos and determined that the Willowbrook Police Department desperately needed $100.

I had two choices according to the citation. I could pay the one hundred bucks or request a hearing date. Anybody who has ever opted for the “request a hearing” choice knows that really isn’t a choice. Ever tried to contest a ticket? You will have better luck arranging a date between Taylor Swift and Kanye West.

I learned this the hard way several years ago when I opted to challenge a citation (a real once, not a virtual one) for (are you ready?) tailgating a police officer.

The charge was ludicrous. Why would I want to do anything to a police officer? But this particular officer was convinced I was riding his bumper so he pulled into a gas station, allowed me to pass, then immediately put on his lights and tailgated me until I pulled over.

I was determined to go to court and tell anybody who listened that my only crime was being near an officer desperate to make traffic ticket quota.

I showed up at the courthouse armed with nothing other than my story, which I rehearsed over and over in my head, ready to counter attack any argument from whatever legal authority was in charge, even if it was Judge Judy.

Instead I was introduced to a sassy African American female judge who called my name and demanded that I approach the bench.

“What do you want to do?” she glared at me.

“Your honor, I would like to contest the charge,” I replied.

“Allllllll riiiiiiiight,” she sighed as if my legal decision were about as stupid as Rod Blagojevich electing to plead innocent.

“What’s the charge?” she asked the prosecution. Before the assistant district attorney could even answer, she glanced at some paperwork.

“Tailgating!” she said, answering her own question. “I HATE when people tailgate me. Here I am driving and all of a sudden I see their nose right behind my bumper.” To demonstrate she put her own hand approximately a quarter inch from her own nose and moved it even closer.

“Still want to contest the charge?” she asked.

At this point, OJ Simpson’s Dream Team could not have help me. I elected to plead guilty and paid the fine. I would have washed her car for a year if she had requested it.

While arguing in court may not be effective, sometimes it works when the ticket is actually issued, something that is impossible when getting a virtual ticket. My wife has talked her way out of four speeding tickets. I’ve never been with her when this happens so I don’t know exactly what she says to the officer, although she assures me she doesn’t bare any skin. The point is, she whips the car pool around at 85 miles per hour yet still has an impeccable driving record thanks to her gift of gab.

My persuasive skills are not nearly as impressive when it comes to moving violations. But admit it, at least when you get pulled over without the aid of cameras, there is always a chance that you will drive away with a warning.

Such is not the case with a ticket garnered through the use of red-light cameras mounted on traffic signals. I could only imagine what that argument would be like.

Willowbrook Police Department. Do you have an emergency?

Uh, no but I would like to speak to Officer Mark.

He can’t come to the phone now. He’s busy Photoshopping.

The manner in which you receive a virtual ticket is equally humiliating. It comes in the mail, for crying out loud. There is no sense of impending doom, no lights and siren in your rearview mirror, no frantic search for insurance papers as you hear the click of boots on pavement and know the officer is about to stick his head, his flashlight and possibly a loaded .38-caliber revolver inside your open window.

There also is no chance to think, “Maybe, just maybe, I can outrun this guy.”

Admit it, when a police officer is on your tail in full police officer mode, a really stupid thought flashes through your mind. It begins and ends in about a nanosecond but it existed nonetheless. You actually contemplate a high-speed pursuit, with your car in the lead.

I attribute this thought to the fact that we watch so many movies where the lead character manages to outrun not just one police officer but an entire force. This is made infinitely easier due to the fact that there is always a dirt road up ahead on the left.

We’ve witnessed the scene thousands of times. “TURN LEFT AT THAT DIRT ROAD.”

Amidst a screech of brakes and a cloud of dust, our hero does just that while the unwitting officers continue heading straight. Crisis averted, the driver is now free to unwind by making out with the female in the passenger seat.

Had I been pursued by an actual officer at Route 83 and 63rd Street in Willowbrook, Illinois, I would have immediately pulled over since there was no dirt road on the left. My only choice of escape was a Whole Foods parking lot, which offered limited cover.

I’d still be out 100 bucks but at least I would have driven away knowing that I was in the wrong and determined to be a better driver in the future.

Being flagged by technology only gets my blood boiling. Like everything else these days, it’s just so darn impersonal.

Yet judging from the growing number of municipalities who see red-light cameras as revenue producers, I know that this technology is here to stay. So I will send Norcross, Georgia a check.

Along with a few other items.

As long as photos are being used to determine guilt, I have dug up a few more snapshots from my life that clearly show legal infractions. Might as well come clean, right?

There’s the photo of me playing Little League baseball and rounding the bases during a home run. To this day, I believe I may not have touched second base. With today’s technology, the photo should prove it.

Here are several photos of me drinking at a college frat party. Drinking while underage, I admit.

Here I am in seventh grade. Note that I am wearing a leisure suit. That has to be illegal.

Tell me what I owe. May God have mercy on my soul.