Speed, justice and the American way

I was driving home from Kansas City the other day, with the cruise control set for a nice-and-legal 69 mph, when my venerable ride began to act a bit — please pardon the technical jargon here — wonky.

My car surged a bit, then slowed. Then, much to my surprise, my speedometer plummeted from 69 to 0 in a split-second. Though my momentum had begun to slow, I was still eating miles at a pace considerably faster than the goose egg my speedo displayed. Not the quickest SUV in the fleet, I finally figured out what had happened. My speedometer (sorry, more jargon) broke.

So I tucked in behind a car I had just passed and finished my drive home at an unknown rate of speed.

It has been nearly a week now, and though I haven’t driven much, I have motored a bit around town, somehow, miraculously, making it to my destination despite never having gone any faster than 0 mph. My odometer hasn’t budged, either. You could say I’m going nowhere fast. Or everywhere slow.

Until I can get it into the shop to make the repairs later this week, I’m rather enjoying my time as a speedless wonder. Though I suppose I could extrapolate my speed based on gearing and engine RPM, I simply make a point not to be the fastest driver on the road. It’s all relative.

The most amusing aspect of my speedlessness is the effect it has on my kids.

I think my daughter, a by-the-book type, is genuinely uncomfortable riding around at mysterious velocities, which is just fine with me. She’s a teenager, after all; it’s her sole mission in life to be uncomfortable.

My son, however, is a bit more of a free spirit, and I think he sees it as a grand adventure.

The other day, we were driving downtown, and he kept bringing up my speed-nometer.

“So, if you got pulled over right now,” he asked, “you’d be in big trouble, right?”

I explained that, no, I might be fined for faulty equipment and ticketed for speeding, but it wasn’t exactly cause for a blindfold and cigarette.

He wouldn’t let it drop, so I launched into a screed about laws and lawlessness.

I explained that though speeding is absolute — 26 mph in a 25 is speeding, period — punishment is somewhat subjective. I explained it’s only speeding if you get caught, and even then is at the discretion of the representative of the law.

I asked him, What if you were on a deserted road, rushing to the hospital for the birth of your first child, and you’re pulled over after having gone a mere 1 mph over the limit? That’s not the same as doing 65 in a school zone at dismissal time.

Taking his silence as mark of his interest, I plowed forward.

I suggested it is that gray area that determines the nature of a society. With apologies to St. Augustine and all those other smart guys, sometimes the justice of a law is only determined by its application.

Hearing what I assumed to be a snore of rapt attention, I continued on.

I told him it’s kind of like the reasoning some cyclists use to justify running red lights or rolling stop signs. Though all vehicles are legally bound to stop, some cyclists think it’s OK to roll on through because their mode of transportation is morally superior. Or because the intent of such laws is not to bring vehicles to a complete standstill but to instill a sense of order for the protection of all, and cyclists can maintain that order while ignoring the laws.

I explained to my son that, as much as I can understand those sentiments, I always stop, not out of morality but practicality. As much as I might want to stick it to The Man by rolling his stop signs, I don’t want to end up as a hood ornament because I did. And I honestly believe if I want to have all the rights of a road user, I have to adhere to all the laws of one.

Now that I’m not bound by some absolute number on my dashboard, I’m not going to go all Speed Racer. I do think some speed limits are a bit arbitrary, but I follow them. And as long as my speedometer is on the fritz, I’m likely to drive even slower than normal to make sure I’m not butting up against the limit — not out of fear of punishment, but because I’m a good law-abider. While I appreciate the right — the need, even — to rebel against unjust laws, I don’t think 25 on the street in front of my house is unjust.

I could all but hear his eyes rolling, or perhaps rolling back in his head, but I think I saw a little glint, too, and I realized too late my mistake.

Rather than instill in my son a sense of righteousness and justice and a quick lesson in civil disobedience, I instead gave him a blueprint for excuses not to clean his room.

Oh, well, I guess our next trip in the car will have to include a little lesson in various forms of government, particularly dictatorships.