I noticed the highway patrol following close behind, mirroring my every traffic move. The fear mounted in my body and I intentionally slowed my breathing. After five minutes of rising terror, he turned the corner and I began to relax. I assume the internet search of my license plate number did not signal any red flags. I began to think of all the times I’d been stopped “while driving Black” over the last couple of decades and then a countering memory from many years earlier came to mind.
Denver to Palo Alto
The first time a police officer stopped me, it was 1976, and I was speeding along Interstate 80 heading west towards California from Denver, CO, as a sophomore at Stanford University. I headed towards Phoenix to pick up my friend. Racing alone, when the lights and sirens showed up in my rear-view mirror, I remember feeling scared, not about my safety, more because of my embarrassment from being caught. At some point, I’d have to share the news with my parents.
On this long stretch of empty highway, my being safe only mattered to my parents, who had argued with me for days about driving to California alone. The compromise was that they would follow me along in their car as far as Colorado Springs, which turned into Salt Lake City, which ended at the Grand Canyon on the periphery of Arizona. Multiple arguments between my parents and me took place along the way. My father took me aside and told me I had inflicted hurt on my mother of indescribable proportions. But I held steadfast. I mean, I was an adult now, right. I demonstrated my adulthood by going to a college out of state and being a safe driver. I’d never gotten a traffic ticket. I’d been driving for years now. The arguments about flat tires and desolate stretches of the road with no way of getting in touch with anyone, waiting for luck to bring help, didn’t rattle me. I had Triple-A roadside service and a car with new tires.
Most importantly, I was responsible! It had been a conversation about personal maturity, not safety per se. Stories likened to the death of Sandra Bland heading to her newly acquired employment would never have been shared. Obviously, they existed but I had been shielded. I was clueless.
The older white officer approached the car. Nervous, my voice shaky, I had no strategy. I thought, what is my excuse for driving over the speed limit? I knew I would be late to pick up my friend in Arizona because of all the stops for meals and long debates with my parents. I stopped paying attention to my speed on my long drive through the flat desert countryside. He approached me, said hello, and smiled. He asked me my name, how old I was, and where I was going. He proceeded to chat with me about the dangers of driving fast. He described how many of the deadly car accidents on this stretch of the road were caused by young people speeding. He encouraged me to slow down and to be safe. He said it was a warning, and if I drove over the speed limit again, he would be obligated to give me a ticket. I smiled knowing I could keep this secret from my parents.
Two states later, with my friend in the passenger seat, I encountered another police officer. Speeding along the beautiful California coast heading north from Los Angeles, chatting about friends, courses, and sports; I had forgotten the warning in Arizona. Again, I wondered what I would say to the police officer as he approached my car. He too let me off with a warning to slow down, and a promise of a ticket if caught speeding again. I look back at my attitude and behavior so long ago and think, “clueless while driving at 18 in 1974.”