Field Sobriety and You

- by Michael

Dave Barry once said that the unifying force among Americans is that, “regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background … deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.” In my case, however, this is completely true.

Now, I’m not a particularly safe driver – speed limits are more like suggestions, or minimum acceptable velocities, for the most part. And I’m certainly not a “defensive driver” – I don’t like the term “aggressive,” though. I’m simply “assertive.” If my turn signal is on, for instance, it is not a request. It is an announcement of intent. Deal with it.

But what I’m actually really good at doing is avoiding the blue lights. Yes, I’ll go 85 in a 70, but I have to know my terrain, know where the likely hiding spots are, and so forth, and I adjust accordingly whenever there’s a likely ambush spot around the bend. As a result, I’ve been pulled over once in the last six years.

And that once was actually because I was paying attention.

It was about a year before the wedding, and Joanie and I were on our way home from dinner with friends. There’s a highway in Waco where the speed limit bounces back and forth between 45 and 60, and as we traveled down the road a pair of headlights came up behind us and just perched on our shoulder.

“Michael, I think that’s a cop.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right. The speed limit’s about to change again, I think, he’s trying to bait me into speeding.” (This was punctuated by an unkind sentiment on the assumed police officer’s presumed parentage.) “I’ll just stick to 45, that way I’m definitely going at or under the limit, he’ll get bored, and -
 oh, nope, nope, he’s turned his lights on.”

And when the Texas state patrolman got up to my window, do you know what he said to me?

“Speed limit’s 60 here, son. Any reason you’re going so slowly?”

Now, I am no criminologist. But usually one hears of people being accosted for breaking laws, not for obeying them to excess.

At any rate, I replied, “Well, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if the speed limit was 45 or 60 here – it changes, you know – and I was sure that you were an officer, and felt like I should be careful to obey the speed limit because, no offense, I didn’t really want to get pulled over.” All with a good ol’ Alabama smile that looks sweet but actually means “You’re on, under, around, and through my last nerve already.”

His follow-up question, however, defined the evening.

“Have you been drinking tonight?”

Now to me, “have you been drinking” is a pretty vague question. Do you mean “Have you consumed any alcohol whatsoever on this evening?” Do you mean “Did you just leave that seedy bar called ‘Crying Shame’ after having consumed roughly the annual hops output of Bavaria?” Be specific!

I told him the truth: “I had a splash of Bailey’s in some coffee about three hours ago, but otherwise nope.”

And because he’s Officer Reasonable, he says, “Get out of the car, please.”

To be completely clear, I was at no time during the ensuing exercise even slightly afraid that I would be found guilty of driving under the influence. I was quite serious about my consumption: I’d had a little bit o’the Irish several hours previously, and nothing else, as I knew I’d be driving home. The moment I stepped out of the car I knew I could either take umbrage at this officious jerk who was clearly looking to fill a quota or I could smile, go along for the ride, and rub salt in it when he was forced to concede that I was sober as a judge. (Or more sober, depending on the judge.)

I walked a thin white line – then volunteered to do so backwards. He was not impressed.

I stretched my arms out wide and swung my hands inward to touch my nose, which I accomplished with Olympic-level precision, then asked if he would like me to touch some other part of my face, or perhaps do the Funky Chicken or the Sprinkler. He ignored me.

I recited my alphabet, and when I got to the end, told him in no uncertain terms that under no chemical circumstances whatsoever could I recite it backwards, and that he would have to do it with me if he wanted me to give it a shot.

By this point he was visibly frustrated. Luckily for me, by this point his mandatory backup observance unit had arrived, and the other officer was leaning on my Buick talking to Joanie. From what I gather, their conversation went something like this:

“He’s not drunk, is he?”

“Not even close. But he’s getting a laugh out of it.”

“Yeah, that’s good. Better than being aggressive about it.”

“Hey, can I take a field sobriety test? I’ve never done one.”

“Ma’am, I don’t think that’s really – ”

“Hey! Officer!” (She was now leaning out the window during my alphabet recitation.) “Can I take the test, too? Please? Oh, come on, I’ve never done one before!”

After a couple more tests, including standing on one leg and reciting the pledge of allegiance while doing so (yes, it felt like I was trying to gain entrance into a fraternity), the officer who’d pulled me over was forced to conclude that I was, in fact, not inebriated. He told me through gritted teeth that he was satisfied that I could go, and then had the gall to add, “Now, I want you to please drive safely.”

Nevermind that I had been going fifteen miles under the speed limit. I needed to drive safely.

I put my big ol’ Alabama grin back on and shook his hand, thanked him for his service to our community, told him that it felt great to have such conscientious officers of the law out there doing their bit to protect us citizens, assured him that there were no hard feelings, and in general kept the handshake going long past the point of polite conversation. Through it all, he kept an impassive face, but I could tell from his eyes that he had really been hoping to trip me up and get one ticket closer to his monthly total.

Joanie waved a cheery goodbye to the amused backup officer as I slid into the driver’s seat. “All good?” she asked.

“Yes indeed. But once we get home,” I started the car, “I need a drink.”