I’ve been around the judicial system enough to know that most everyone who comes before it will tell you he’s not guilty — and that most everyone who says that is probably not telling the truth. This self-deception goes all the way to the top: I have reported on several of the lifers at Rahway State Prison and heard them explain — most convincingly — that they were really innocent.
So when I got a summons from Lawrence Township a few weeks ago, charging that I ran a red light at the corner of Franklin Corner Road and Route 1, my immediate response was not guilty.
I remembered the moment vividly — I was taking my car to the dealer for a check-up. I remembered approaching the intersection and being astonished that there was no sign forbidding a right hand turn on red. I approached, came to a full and complete stop as my father had taught me to do in the personal driver-ed program he put all five of his kids through, and then I proceeded to make my turn. To make matters worse, the ticket indicated that the violation had occurred in a “safe zone,” and that doubled one portion of the fine, making the grand total $140.
Just to double check myself, I returned to the scene of the crime (alleged crime), to confirm my vivid memory. There is indeed no sign forbidding a right hand turn on red on Franklin Corner as you approach Route 1. Nor is there any sign warning you that you are entering a “safe zone,” the Department of Transportation’s felicitous phrase for sections of highway that have inordinately high accident rates. Maybe better to call them “unsafe zones,” I thought.
To triple check, I noted that the violation had been captured by that notorious camera system installed at the Route 1-Franklin Corner Road intersection. The ticket had a web address where I could view the video evidence. I went there and ran the video.
As I have written in this column many times before: Our memory is never as good as we think it is. That observation has been made in relation to things that happened 20 or 30 or more years ago. The viewing of the traffic cam video took place 20 or 30 days after the fact. I was astonished at what I saw. Just to make sure I ran it again. Could this be some sort of police or prosecutorial misconduct, I wondered. Tampering with evidence? The voice in my head sounded like one of those lifers at Rahway.
But the evidence seemed indisputable. The tape showed my car approaching the intersection, slowing down a little, but coming nowhere near the full and complete stop my father had taught me so many years ago. The slowdown turned into a graceful right turn through the intersection. At no point did I ever stop. According to that tape I was guilty as charged.
The tape was an eye-opener. As I drove around town, I began to take note of my driving, especially when I had opportunities to turn right on red. I do it every day at Washington and Faculty roads, and then at Alexander and Roszel roads, and then at Alexander and Faculty coming home. Armed with my new consciousness, I realized that in fact I had been cruising through each of these intersections. I began to make a deliberate effort to come to that full and complete stop and then hold it another fraction of a second. I was anxious as I did it. Was I going to be rear-ended by some other aggressive driver?
Even given that I have gone 40 years or so without an accident, the fact was that somewhere between the time I was taught to come to a full and complete stop before turning right on red and now, I had become part of the frenetic pack of drivers hell bent on hurrying up whenever possible (and of course then waiting at some inevitable point further ahead).
The time came for me to dash off a check for $140, toss it in the mail, and be done with this judicial inconvenience. But something made me say, slow down. Maybe it would be good to spend a little time in Lawrence Township Municipal Court, plead guilty when my time came, but along the way make my point about those “safe zone” signs.
So I spent the better part of a recent Wednesday morning in Lawrence Township court, seeing first hand in real time what may be the greatest divide in this country: economic. My time in court is a whole ’nother story, and another eye opener.
Needless to say I took my time driving back to the office.