The Scofflaw Days of My Youth

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Last week I used my girlfriend’s car to drive from Bangor to Belfast for a dental appointment. It’s entirely possible to do the trip by bus, of course, but that requires a day in Belfast, and I had an appointment to get back for that afternoon. So I drove, like most normal, car-owning Americans would.

Somewhere in Hampden, I remembered that Lisa had recently mentioned needing to take the car in for its annual inspection, and that she also needed to renew the registration. Had she taken care of it? I was in a 35 mph zone when I wondered this, and I slowed to the speed limit. I checked around for cops. It wouldn’t do to borrow her car and come home with a traffic ticket.

When I stopped, I made sure both stickers were up to date. Sometime in the last busy week, she’d found time to take the car in. And I thought, selfishly, that I didn’t have to worry about things like inspections and registrations any more. All those little requirements add up. An outdated sticker is an invitation to a traffic stop, which can cost even more money, and if you live on a limited budget, even a few tickets and fines can quickly snowball on you.

That’s exactly what happened to me in California in the early 1990s. Accumulated tickets and unpaid fines caused my driver’s license to be suspended. Since I needed the car to get to work, and I needed to work to have any hope of paying the fines (which steadily grew as I ignored them), I continued to drive, without a license. For three years.

Had I been pulled over at any point during that time, I likely would have lost my car and gone to jail. But I kept the registration current. The sticker on the license plate was never out of date. I made sure all the lights worked, too, and I obeyed the speed limits. I never did anything on the road to draw attention to myself.

Less than two week after I finally hauled myself into court, paid my fines and penalties, and got my license reinstated, a cop pulled me over for a non-functioning license plate light.

I was glad that the light hadn’t gone out a month earlier. I thought about how lucky I’d been to get through those three years without consequence. But I also thought about how people are tied to their cars, because of where they live or what they do for work or the circumstances in their lives that make 24/7 access to a vehicle seem like such a necessity. That was me, once, and driving illegally seemed an acceptable risk.

When I was young and stupid, I used to have a rule: only break one law at a time. For example, if I wanted to drink a beer in the car, I’d drive the speed limit. When I learned to drive, in a century that now seems distant, I thought nothing of getting behind the wheel and popping open a cold one. I only stopped doing it when I was driving on a suspended license.

Now, drunk driving is a serious issue, and I don’t wish to make light of it. But things were different then. My parents didn’t drive drunk, but they sometimes enjoyed a refreshing malt beverage behind the wheel. One day my family checked in to a hotel in Boston with valet parking. As the valet opened the door, two beer cans rolled onto the pavement. I’m glad we don’t do things that way any more.

I never had beer in the car when I drove without a license. And the scofflaw days of my youth are thankfully behind me. I don’t drink as much as I used to, and I drive far less than I did then.

But I keep my license current even though I no longer own a car. I like to be legal when I do drive. It’s easy to run afoul of the law. All you have to do is forget to renew your registration, or let your inspection sticker lapse, and your car becomes a cop magnet.

During the three years I drove with a suspended license, I was the most cautious driver on the road. As an outlaw, I was paradoxically less of a danger to other drivers than I would have been with a valid license and a beer between my legs. I’m even less of a danger now, because most of the time, I’m on a bus or a bicycle.

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