Despite our being face to face, it was impossible to see the policeman’s eyes behind the dark glasses. The blank lenses looked at me, still and questioning. Waiting for an answer, in fact. I dug the toe of my shoe into the dirt, trying to work out a suitable reply. Why had I been driving at 153 km/h in a 110 zone?
Perhaps I should tell the truth: I was testing the high speed stability of my ’99 Prius after fitting some aerodynamic front wheel deflectors. But I could hear the bellow of rage that would come from the pursed lips below those dark glasses: What? On a Public Road?
Or perhaps I could mutter something about the light traffic and clear conditions. But although it was a sunny Queensland day, the traffic wasn’t particularly sparse.
Or might it be better to make a little joke about the Prius being the fastest hybrid petrol/electric vehicle he was likely to pull over this week, month or year. But those lips didn’t look like they’d curl upwards in an acknowledging grin.
The silence dragged on: there was no answer that would satisfy this Pacific Motorway patrolman.
He walked back to his car to write out the ticket. The four lanes of traffic heading north continued to stream by, the white police Falcon sitting behind and a little outwards of the Prius which was pulled well onto the verge with its hazard lights flashing.
What a fool I’d been – not to be driving fast (although perhaps that too), but not to have realised the car turning through the emergency opening in the median strip was an unmarked police vehicle. And then not to have been checking my mirrors constantly as the electric motor and little petrol engine gave their all... I paced up and down the stretch of dirt, watching the white flashes of faces curiously turned my way as the traffic roared by.
The policeman walked back to me, long yellow ticket in hand.
"Exceeding the posted speed limit by more than 40 kilometres an hour," he droned. "Eight demerit points and a seven hundred dollar fine" - he paused to let that sink in and then added the king-hit – "and six months license disqualification."
He walked back to his car, got in, and drove away.
I felt sick. A motoring journalist might be able to continue to find employment without a driving license, but it would be hard – very hard. No new car tests, no on-road testing of modifications, no easy visits to workshops. I slowly drove on to the wrecker that I’d been on my way to visit, enthusiasm completely gone for the project I was working on.
But then my mind started working again. What appeal mechanisms were there? Could I let the offence go to court and seek a reduction in the penalty? The fine and the points loss were no big deal. But the license suspension sure was...
I read the piece of paper the policeman had given me – my options weren’t particularly clear. When I got home I did an on-line search for the relevant Act – and couldn’t find it. I rang a free legal advice line and made an appointment to see a lawyer. She turned out to be very knowledgeable on the topic of loss of license through drink-driving – but knew almost nothing about my offence. However, she gave me a booklet which showed how drink drivers could get their licenses back through a court appeal... a mechanism that seemed likely to be also open to me.
I asked more questions, did more on-line searching and finally found the applicable Act: the Transport Operations (Road Use Management – Driver Licensing) Regulation 1999. Part 6a – "Suspension For Speeding More Than 40 km/h Over The Speed Limit" – was the relevant bit. Ah, and here was something that could be useful, very useful. "The person may appeal against the suspension only on the grounds that the suspension would cause extreme hardship to the person, or the person’s family, by depriving the person of the means of earning a living," said part 30D.
Well, that was surely me. My fiancé is a full time university student, we have a baby, and the sole source of household income is my job as a motoring journalist. I work for two publishers (Web Publications and Silicon Chip Publications) and there would be no problems in getting these organisations to provide letters stating that without my having a driving license, they would substantially reduce the amount of material bought from me.
I picked up the application form for a court appeal, lodged it and was able to drive until the appeal was heard – about 4 weeks later. By this stage I had paid the fine and had the demerit points awarded against me. Since the speeding offence was a fait accompli and the appeal was legally based around the financial hardship that I and my family would endure without a driving license, I was sure that in court the magistrate would require that I provide evidence of this hardship. The day before the court appearance I had the two letters from the publishers ready and wrote a speech fleshing-out the skeleton provided by them.
I hired a suit (literally the first time in my life I have ever worn one!) and went to court.
Georgina and little Alexander accompanied me; we made jokes about how she should pinch him at the right time so that he cried loudly in the public gallery to add verisimilitude to my testimony on potential hardship. We laughed, but the tension within us was growing and growing.
That day there were six appeals against license disqualifications being heard in Court 5 of the Southport Magistrates Court. Another man – a little older than me and accompanied by his wife – was in a formal suit; another man was young and wearing a t-shirt with a large rotary engine emblem on the front. The court official took any written submissions that we had and in return gave us our driving records; these would be used by the magistrate as part of his decision-making process. My record was only a page long – I’ve lived in Queensland for just four years and apart from the offence in question, in that time have had only a minor radar camera speeding offence. In contrast, the rotary man’s driving record went for page after page: his face grew more and more downcast as he leafed through it.
We were called in one at a time: the be-suited man came out looking relieved and sat down, while the rotary guy unemotionally exited the court room and headed straight for the lifts.
Then a policeman came through the double doors of the court and called: "Julian Edgar!" It was my turn.
A courtroom is a chilling place, especially if you don’t even know where you’re supposed to stand. I paused uncertainly, then decided the dais directly in front of the magistrate was my spot. If it wasn’t, I didn’t know what would happen when I walked there. I opened my folder and extracted my speech. It was – I thought – a good speech, written with specific reference to the Act and full of true points about how a loss of driving license would cause hardship to my family and me.
It was a good speech – but I didn’t get to use any of it.
"Mr Edgar," said the magistrate, "what were the circumstances of this speeding offence?"
Eight weeks later it was the policeman’s question all over again. And answering it this time was just as hard.
"I am a motoring journalist," I said. "I was testing the aerodynamic stability of a car after I had made some modifications to it."
At the words "aerodynamic modifications" I felt the courtroom public gallery behind me stir: clearly, no one else had said this!
"But it was an inappropriate place to test the modifications and I am regretful that I did so; however, those are the circumstances of the offence."
The magistrate looked through my driving record, asked some questions about my driving history, then said:
"I suggest Mr Edgar that you are more circumspect in your driving behaviour in future. The application is granted and the cancellation is set aside. Wait outside the courtroom."
My appeal had been successful – I could continue to drive! But I was a little bemused... it was almost as if the magistrate didn’t know the applicable Act. Or perhaps the letters from my employers had been sufficient evidence of hardship? Either way, that feeling of impending, unavoidable doom – an awful blackness hanging over me - was gone.
That night I slept for nearly 10 hours – until the next morning, I hadn’t realised how the strain had been impacting.