The $97 reminder

Newspaper columns are a dandy place to philosophize about civic and public life, but they don't focus the mind as efficiently as my three minutes with an Ashland cop last week. I was coasting down Wimer Street as he was headed up on his motorcycle, and seeing him reminded me that my seatbelt wasn't fastened. I pulled it across my chest and clicked it closed as we passed each other. Then I stopped at the intersection at North Main and turned right toward the Plaza.

A moment later he was in my rearview mirror, lights flashing all the colors. I pulled over by Briscoe school and watched in the sideview mirror as he swung off his bike. I waited with a flush of that free-floating existential guilt particular to moments like these.

"Good afternoon, sir," he said. "Do you know why I stopped you?" He flipped open his ticket book and began writing just as I told him I wasn't sure. Not good. Experience tells me that any chance of talking your way out of a ticket ends the moment pen touches pad.

"You weren't wearing your seat belt." My mind scurried through possible responses. But I am, officer. Just take a look: All buckled up, yessiree! or That's amazing, I always wear it. I guess hearing that Mom died this morning got to me more than I thought or You know, officer, I just pulled out of my friend's driveway six inches uphill from where you saw me, and was all buckled up with 100 feet of my starting point. But he just scribbled away. Too late. "Yep," I said, "that was careless. I just started out a little ways up the street and seeing you reminded me." He nodded, finished writing, ripped my copy of the ticket off the pad, handed it to me with instructions on where and when to appear, and told me to have a nice day.

In the little box labeled "base fine" he'd written $97. That's my latte budget for two years.

Just one question interested me as I drove home: What could I say to the Municipal Court Judge that might get me out of this with nothing more than a warning? Should I stitch together a lie or two? Claim the cop must have missed seeing the strap across my shoulder, since its color was about the same as my shirt's? (And, by the way, getting ratted out by my shoulder strap makes me question how much an "improvement" it is over the old belt-only style). Or take a higher road, something like "It saddens me, your honor, after 25 years as a law-abiding member of this community, to be punished for an absent-minded moment like this without so much as a warning." I can almost see Her Honor's eyes moisten.

I like to think and write about the tradeoff between individual and community rights. In the big picture, when you compare the environmental landscape, man-made infrastructure, quality of neighborhoods and economic opportunities we're handing our kids to what we inherited, you can make a powerful argument that we've let the impacts of individual rights crush community rights (though clearly it's easy to find exactly the opposite viewpoint; has there ever been a society that combines as many individual rights with as much complaining about violation of individual rights as we do?).

But in the tiny picture inside my car last week on Wimer Street, things looked different. You're ticketing and fining me, branding me a law breaker, for not buckling up my own seatbelt in my own damn car? Really? Maybe those cranky callers who preached the evils of government to me on my old radio show deserved more attention than I gave them.

A few hours later I remembered that the law might have a larger purpose than annoying me. The American College of Preventative Medicine reports on its website that mandatory seatbelt laws save Iowa taxpayers $70 million annually in medical costs, and that those who don't wear seatbelts are between 55 percent and 400 percent more likely to be hospitalized after a crash. Over time the data has earned my support for mandatory seatbelt (and motorcycle helmet) laws: Your right to plaster yourself across the highway is nothing I want to pay for. But that opinion's lighter to hold when somebody other than me gets dinged for $97.

And maybe this matters: The week since this happened is probably the only week in 40-plus years of driving when I've remembered to buckle up every single time I've entered my car. Am I as likely to maintain the habit if the judge grants my request to let me off with a free warning?

Just between you and me? No.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts available at

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