Road Sage

Naughty drivers but 'nice' folks

Reporter tags along to scout for speedsters in Rancho Palos Verdes with sheriff's deputy who has a kind word for each violator.
March 17, 2008

"What we're dealing with here is a complete lack of respect for the law."

Remember that line? That's Texas Sheriff Buford T. Justice -- the fat, foul-mouthed, funny bigot played by Jackie Gleason -- in one of the Sage's favorite road movies, "Smokey and the Bandit."

I was thinking about Buford recently while on my way to Rancho Palos Verdes. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Chris Knox had invited me on a ride-along as he cracked down on traffic violators. I was praying for a Gleason look-alike who would snarl comments such as, "Hello, you big lollipop."

Instead, Knox was thin, well-spoken and enthusiastic about his job patrolling Rancho Palos Verdes and writing tickets for speeders and other violators of traffic law.

The first offender we pulled over was going 50 mph in a 35 mph zone. After he gave her a ticket, the woman's truck stalled, so Knox used his car to help her with a rolling start.

"Nice lady," he said after writing her up.

The second ticket went to a 16-year-old who had received her driver's license 10 days earlier. She was going 60 in a 45 zone and was transporting two teenage boys without the adult supervision required by law.

"Nice young lady," Knox said after writing her up, although he did make the two boys -- one of whom was holding a pizza -- get out and walk. That was kind of cool.

And so it went. Knox would drive around, find a spot and, usually within 10 minutes, nail someone for speeding -- with that someone invariably being a "nice" person.

Interestingly, Knox showed no interest in nit-picky violations. Each of the five people Knox ticketed while I was with him was going at least 15 mph over the speed limit.

The problem in Rancho Palos Verdes is that a lot of the roads are twisty, two-lane affairs. Many also are popular with bicyclists. Still, motorists often treat the place like it's Talladega, and Knox in the last year caught someone going 86 mph in a 40 mph zone and another going 105 in a 45 zone on Palos Verdes Drive West. Knox tossed that guy in jail for reckless driving.

Knox said he typically writes 11 tickets during a shift, a number that seems low considering how much speeding I see on roads in the region. Knox looks at it this way: "I wrote 2,700 tickets last year, and there's plenty of people around here who know me -- for better or worse."

If headed to the Peninsula, consider yourself warned. And slow down.

Brain vs. cells

Like to chat on the cellphone while driving? Or send steamy text messages to your new Internet hookup?

Not to rain on anyone's parade -- and perhaps this is, like, totally obvious IMO -- but Carnegie Mellon University researchers say that if you're using your cellphone, you're devoting less brainpower to driving. Specifically, 37% less.

And, they say, that's probably reflected in your driving. Students in car simulators were more likely to weave and collide with things while on their cellphones.

California has a law going into effect July 1 that says anyone who uses a cellphone while driving must have a hands-free device. But Carnegie Mellon researchers, like those at the University of Utah, say it's not a matter of where your hands are. Just talking with another person on a cellphone is a distraction.

That left the Sage wondering how talking on a hands-free device is different from talking to a passenger or listening to the radio.

"A passenger knows to keep quiet when traffic gets demanding, whereas your cellphone conversation partner has no way of knowing" when to be quiet, said Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon.

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