The last time I was in traffic court, I sat for more than two hours listening to others make excuses for the way they drive and park their cars. It was enough to make me throw myself at the mercy of the court (on a parking ticket case) because by the time my case was called, every conceivable excuse had already been used, sometimes more than once.
If you've ever wondered why the streets of the Washington area are so screwed up, listen to some of those who are screwing up.
"Your honor, my car was about to run out of gas," one man told the judge. "I had to run that red light so I could pull the car to the side of the road."
The judge looked sympathetic, and the man's story might have worked -- except for the police officer who told the judge that even after the man ran the red light, his car continued to run. And run. And run.
"Your honor, a friend of mine used my car without telling me," a woman began. "I know nothing about these parking tickets. I was shocked to find a boot on my car."
To which the judge replied, "Then I suggest you now tell your friend that you have been ordered to pay $1,200. Next."
"Your honor -- that light was yellow!"
It was one of the few admissions of guilt, although the man was shocked to find that in D.C. it is illegal to drive through a yellow light.
"Your honor, my [insert any and all family members] died. I was distraught and just didn't see that [insert any and all traffic signs, and include pedestrians and bicyclists]."
The courtroom was packed and the accused milled about the hallways waiting for their names to be called. Some rehearsed their stories while others made frantic efforts to find out if the officers who wrote their tickets were likely to turn up in traffic court as well.
From the way they looked and acted, all were guilty. Yet, what was happening on the streets suggested there were many more who would never be brought to justice.
There is an epidemic of craziness on the highways. Despite bigger and better traffic signals, people continue to run red lights. Despite stiff penalties for illegal parking, the guys who drive the infamous Denver boot trucks are as busy as ever.
At the same time, the National Safety Council reports that nearly 50,000 fatalities are caused each year by drunk driving, speeding and running red lights and that there are more than 1.1 million injuries that result from reckless driving. Local police and traffic engineers link running red lights to a general increase in traffic snarls and say that jaywalkers, tourists and illegally parked cars contribute to the problem.
With more people commuting longer distances, driver fatigue also has been blamed for flaring tempers, fist fights and general lawlessness on the nation's roadways.
In Washington, police are contemplating increasing the number of motorcycle officers in the traffic enforcement unit. They believe that motorists have a healthier respect for two-wheelers. In addition, the traffic lights at 200 intersections have been increased in size from eight to 12 inches.
We can hope that some of these new measures will work. But based on the excuses people are giving for not obeying the law, it's going to take an all-out effort. And it is very likely that a more vigorous crackdown on traffic violators would just bring more people to traffic court to contest their tickets.
The way it stands now, this leaves us with an increasingly weird situation: Some people are willing to spend hours waiting for their traffic cases to be heard -- but can't wait one minute for a red light to turn green.