Confessions of a traffic cop
Yahoo editors have selected this article as a favorite of 2013. It first ran on Yahoo Autos back on Jan. 2 and was one of the most popular stories of the year. We hear from a retired traffic cop who shares some of his tales from the road, as well as offers tips for avoid speeding tickets.
Thirty-five years ago, middle school-age Mike Brucks realized he wanted to be a police officer. After graduating from high school he joined the army and became a military traffic cop on the million-acre Fort Bliss in western Texas and New Mexico. "It was a small-scale community, with slow speeds, and we would investigate accidents on- and off-post, in Colorado, New Mexico, and as far as Corpus Christi, anywhere a serviceman was injured or killed," Brucks says. After six years in the Army he joined the El Paso Police Department as a traffic cop. He retired last May after 22 years and almost 40,000 tickets, by his estimation, most of which he issued while riding Kawasaki and Harley-Davidson big-motor touring bikes. Here are some of his stories from the road and tips for motorists looking to avoid a ticket.
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Besides speeding, which is the reason for most tickets, what's most likely to get a traffic cop's attention?
Seatbelts, cell phones, red lights, and stop signs. I concentrate on all the things that can cause an accident. There are some cops who write tickets for expired plates, for having no insurance or registration, but you're not going to crash because of any of that. I focused on safety issues—that's what I like to do.
Motorcycle or car—which is better for catching speeders?
Motorcycles accelerate so much faster and can maneuver around traffic better. When I'm in a car, it's harder to get it turned around. I grew up riding dirt bikes as a kid. I've always been riding. I teach riding with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation; I have a BMW RT1150 as a personal bike.
Do traffic cops think it's cheating to hide behind billboards?
No. You've got a radar detector; you know where we hide. If you are thinking we are hiding somewhere, it's because you're speeding.
Do you have favorite hiding places?
I stay on the freeway mostly. That's where there are more speeders. I'll park under overpasses, on bridges. I need to be able to start the bike and accelerate to go after someone. If there are a lot of exits, I can miss [a speeder] who can maybe get off at an exit, and then it's too late to catch him.
How much leeway do you give someone before writing them a speeding ticket?
The speed limit in Texas used to be 60 mph, [and] well, out on the clear road where there's a lot of visibility I give people leeway. I wouldn't write tickets until they got to 80 mph. I've never worked an area where the speed limit drops a lot without warning, what I call a trap. If there's a new speed limit that's lower, it [takes] time for people to get used to it and I don't write tickets there.
What can a driver say to get out of a ticket?
When someone tells me that a family member has just been sent to the hospital and they're on their way, how can I ticket them for that? I tell them that they're not being safe, that they need to slow down and stay safe. That's about it.
I think now it's much more of a rat-race world than it was 30 years ago. The workforce has generated that. People have to be at work on time or risk getting fired, kids have to be picked up and taken places—it's just citizens in a hurry. Ninety-eight percent of the people I stop are law-abiding good citizens, and they say they have no reason to speed. That's an easy ticket. They're not happy, but I could go months without any problems, without anyone cussing me out. I wrote a lot of warnings, too, but it all depends on the situation, if they were being safe.
What different kinds of speeders do you find?
Monday through Friday, they're all trying to get to work; they go 70 to 75 mph in a 60 mph zone. On Saturdays and Sundays, there is less traffic, no rush hour, and they go 85 to 90 mph. On the [Woodrow Bean] Transmountain Road, there is a "100 Miles per Hour" club, and a lot of motorcyclists run it on the weekends. When I first started, I worked night shifts, and there are a lot of bad people out there at night. So I liked days, and I would try to work as early as possible before it got hot, because I was on a motorcycle.
Are speed limits too low?
No, the traffic engineers, at least in Texas, are pretty good. It's not that some parts of the highway are safer for speeding, it's that drivers aren't always paying attention. People die on lonely deserted stretches of road too. There are a lot of times drivers aren't concentrating. They need to understand you're going 100 feet per second on the highway. Above 75 mph things just happen so fast, [whether it's] a flat tire, a coyote, wind, dirt, or rocks. It's not that much better now that cars are safer; reaction times are still the same.
What's the toughest ticket you've had to write?
I clocked a woman coming down from New Mexico on Highway 54 at 111 mph. She had just been stopped for going 90 mph 15 minutes [earlier] in New Mexico. Everybody has a reason, and I want to know it. I always ask why someone was speeding, and that's just to open things up. I want to know what they're thinking, if they need my help for something. She had been crying, and the tears didn't just start—they'd been going on a long time, you can tell. She was on her way to a motel in El Paso to catch her husband who was shacked up with another woman there, cheating. How do you write a ticket for that?
Who's the craziest speeder you've seen?
I stopped a guy going 136 mph. I caught him mostly because he thought he lost me. I came up beside him and blocked his front wheel on the curb. The hardest part after that was now I have to be courteous and respectful, although he could have killed someone, and that makes me angry. It's really too bad, he was a good kid, never been in trouble, but now he had to go to jail for felonious evading, and that's really going to wreck his life.
When do you not chase a speeder?
I clocked a guy on a crotch-rocket bike doing 189 mph. Just let him go. Since police departments began to get sued for chasing speeders, around 1995, there's a fine line. You have to determine if you can catch him, if chasing him will cause an accident for him, for you, for the public. There's no way to catch anyone like that.