Imagine yourself in this situation: You are driving down Rockville Pike at the height of rush hour. It's raining. Fog is collecting on the inside of your windshield. Your wiper blades are warped. The needle on the temperature gauge is quivering toward the HOT mark. The driver behind you is sitting on your tail with his high beams blinding you in the rear-view mirror. You feel sweat building on your brow.
To make matters worse, you've had a rotten day at work, there are no good songs on the radio and the carton of ice cream you picked up at the store is beginning to melt.
Suddenly, you see through the smear of water and fog on the windshield that a car is trying to get into your lane from a parking-lot exit.
You repress your natural instincts. Despite the stress of your day, you do not honk or gesture rudely as he nudges into the lane. Instead, you calmly hit the brakes (giving the jerk on your tail time to stop comfortably). Politely you motion to the car in the parking lot to squeeze in front of you. You smile. You wave. You display "good driver etiquette."
Then, incredibly, you see the flash of police lights and a cop telling you to pull to the side of the road. You are furious.
But luck is on your side. The smiling policeman comes over and--behold--says he is giving you not one ticket, but two!
Two tickets to a Capitals or Bullets game at the Capital Centre. Or, tickets to the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center; or lunch at Bloomingdale's in White Flint Mall, or a free lube and oil job at a nearby Mobil station. Less fortunate drivers might only be given a free cheeseburger, shake, and fries at Roy Rogers, or a pizza at Shakey's or Armand's, or coupons for Dart Drug, Giant Food or Safeway.
Then, complimenting you on your etiquette, he gives you a "courteous driver" citation that says, "a public service of Geico" (the insurance company).
"Gee, wow, thanks officer," you say gleefully.
Since inaugurating this courteous driver program six weeks ago at the suggestion of Geico, Montgomery County's 29 traffic officers have given out 100 citations for good driving along with the prizes listed above.
Despite initial reservations among some traffic officers who thought the program would be a pain, Police Chief Bernard D. Crooke is convinced it is a justifiable use of police time. Drivers pulled over are often pleasantly surprised to learn that they have not violated the traffic code, according to Cpl. Philip Caswell, a spokesman for the police department. He says this program helps reduce a commonly held negative image of police officers who work the traffic beats. As for complaints that it's a waste of time, Caswell says, "It's just as easy for the officers to stop and give someone a good citation as a bad one."
But don't be misled. The energy going into this program is not just a sudden gesture of good will and beneficence on the part of the county police and Geico. Apart from free cheeseburgers and compliments, there isn't much in it for the drivers.
What the program really comes down to is old-fashioned public relations gimmickry designed to improve the image of the police and of Geico, which, by the way, will not discount insurance premiums for drivers who get these citations. The concept seems to be: free french fries will make almost anybody like a cop (and maybe even an insurance company).
"It shows the positive side of the police officers," Caswell said. "It's good for community relations."
A Geico employe thought up the scheme after seeing a television report about a similar program in Los Angeles. The company approached several local police departments and Montgomery was the only one to take up the idea.
Geico worked the business end of the deal, soliciting freebies for drivers from 130 area businesses. The Capital Centre volunteered 650 pairs of tickets to hockey and basketball games this spring and next fall; Geico printed the citations that bear the company's name.
Police in the traffic division were instructed to use their own criteria for citing drivers and were told to give out about two citations each week.
"Nobody's been really angry at being stopped," said officer Claude Ferebee, a motorcycle policeman in the Silver Spring district who has distributed about a dozen pairs of tickets to sporting events. "I thought it would be a pain at first, but it's interesting to see how people respond." Ferebee does know of one case in which a driver turned down tickets to a hockey game; another driver reportedly was furious when he was stopped on his way to return an overdue rented truck.