I explained it again as we pulled out of the gas station outside of North Platte, about an hour ahead of schedule with five hours to go.
The whole thing is one big math equation, I said. The odds are always in your favor. Just look at the numbers.
There’s about 600 miles of four-lane interstate between Omaha and Breckenridge, Colorado. Six hundred miles of open road, rolling hills, and on a good driving day, visibility to the horizon.
Along with our revved up two-door VW GTI, there must have been at least 2,000 other cars that shared the pavement, all headed west, most going to Denver but a few headed cross-country, all playing the same odds game.
The posted speed limit is 75. At that clip, you could get to Breckenridge in about 10 hours, including “rest breaks.” But what if you pushed it to 85? An extra 10 mph means an extra 70 miles over the course of seven hours that could cut your drive time by at least an hour. And no one wants to hit the Rockies with the sun going down. Driving the straight-up serpentine roads with crazy local rednecks in their rusted-out monster trucks riding your bumper was bad enough without the added stress of poor visibility.
It is worth the risk, and besides, the numbers were in our favor. I went through the math again.
600 miles. 2,000 cars, all speeding. At most, two staters — maybe three — on duty along the way. To get nabbed, the one-in-three cops:
— has to be pointed your direction (that alone doubles your odds),
— has to actually be “on duty” and not eating, taking a dump, taking a call or gabbing with his partner — i.e., he has to be paying attention.
— has to not already be writing a ticket for some other unlucky bastard,
— and then, has to pick your speeding ass out among the hundreds of other speeding asses at the exact moment.
Most important of all — he has to see you before you see him.
Think about it: How long did it take to write up your last ticket? At least 10 minutes; maybe 15. That means at most, a cruiser can write five or six tickets per hour.
600 miles. 2,000 cars, all speeding. Two, maybe three cops along the way, each only writing six tickets per hour. It’s a reverse lottery, where the booby prize is a $200 ticket. Your odds of getting one are about the same as getting struck by lightning. And every time you pass a cruiser along the way without getting a ticket, your odds get better.
Cruise control set. Eyes fixed on the horizon. Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” blaring from the XM. On edge. In my mind I’m Steve McQueen in Bullet. I’m Barry Newman in Vanishing Point. Instead of some shmuck with his wife and two dogs in tow headed to the mountains for some R & R.
We must have passed 100 mini-vans along the way; 100 giant semis driven by blurry-eyed truckers who’d been behind the wheel for 24 hours straight, blinking their headlights in my rear view.
Teresa was having none of it. She said my math was flawed. By North Platte, we’d already passed three cruisers. There had to be more in front of us, especially on a Labor Day weekend. She was right.
I jammed the brakes every time I saw a white or black sedan parked alongside the road, the dogs slamming against the back of our seats.
I jammed the brakes every time Teresa yelled “Look!” followed moments later by “New Mexico!” or “Wisconsin!” or “Ohio,” tapping each license plate into her iPad.
“Look! A Jesus Saves sign!”
“Would you please stop! Every time you yell, I think it’s a cop.”
She tucked her nose back into Fifty Shades of Gray, refusing to read the spicy parts out loud.
We ended up seeing more than six cruisers along the way. Six! Still, most already were writing tickets. The one time we actually passed a cruiser in full-radar mode we weren’t speeding, having gotten jammed behind a U-Haul towing a trailer in the passing lane.
So we made it without a ticket. But the math went out the window on the way back home.
Road construction outside Ogallala turned the highway from four-lane to two-lane — bumper-to-bumper driving 55 in both directions. And then slowly, the traffic came to a standstill. Every few minutes, we’d crawl forward another 100 feet, then stop again. The opposite lane was empty. Unable to see around the truck in front of us, we didn’t know what was going on.
And then the sirens and lights made it obvious. An ambulance blazed past in the opposite direction. Twenty minutes later we saw where it had come from. Five or six cop cars along with two tow trucks were parked off the shoulder about 20 yards from a black sedan whose entire front end was smashed in, its windshield two giant spider webs where the heads must have hit.
Teresa: “Look, there’s a dog still in the car.” A black lab stuck its head out the passenger window, then bounded back inside the car, apparently unhurt.
We would find out later both passengers had been killed instantly when they lost control of their car trying to pass a truck, slamming head-on into a semi in the opposite lane.
It was something I hadn’t figured into the equation. There are worse prizes in this reverse lottery than getting a ticket.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.