Police and motorcyclists; they’re natural enemies! Or at least that seems to be the attitude that many take. Read the bike magazines and you see a lot of “us-and-them” type comments – from both the journalists and the readers who write in. It’s like the Martins writing about the McCoys, or cats writing about dogs! But, as one scruffy-haired professor used to say, “Why is it so?” Well, I suppose it’s because no-one likes getting booked! And the very nature of a motorcycle (well, most of them anyway) means that it’s easy to get booked! When you’re at the controls of something that’ll run with a Ferrari, and has a natural cruising-speed that occurs well above the national speed-limit, it’s easy to find yourself traveling at an illegal speed.
But some would argue that it goes deeper than that. It’s about the very nature of the people. Police are, some would claim, people who have a natural predisposition against motorcyclists, and are out to get them at every opportunity. And some others would claim that motorcyclists are, by nature, people with a natural tendency to disregard the law, by taking full advantage of what their machine can do. A case of “us-and-them”! (By the way, speaking of people, the photos above and in the rest of this, aren’t supposed to represent any particular attitudes, they’re just photos I found, or had, of police and bikes).
Well, I want to say that I don’t agree! I’ve never looked at the police with an “us-and-them” attitude! And I have to say that, by enlarge, my experiences with police have been very amicable.
The first point that needs to be made here is that cops are people; people who have a job to do. And that job is to enforce the law. If you break the law and get caught, you can’t really complain about the police booking you; they’re just doing their job. You mightn’t agree with the law (sometimes the police don’t agree with them either!), but you can’t blame the police for enforcing them.
Of course, human nature being what it is, you’ll find police with a bad attitude; just as you’ll also find motorcyclists with a bad attitude. But I reckon that in both cases it’s very much the exception rather than the rule. And of course you’ll find people with a bad attitude in every profession and walk of life if you look hard enough!
I’m sure many of you reading this will have stories of bad experiences with police; stories of victimisation, arrogance, intolerance, and so on. And I’m also sure that there are a lot of police who could tell stories of bad experiences with motorcyclists; stories of excessive law-breaking, bad attitude, and so on. As I said, you’ll find people with a bad attitude in all walks of life! But we shouldn’t let bad experiences with one or two people influence our opinion of the whole group of people. One bad-attitude cop doesn’t mean all police have a bad attitude. And neither does one bad-attitude motorcyclist mean that we all have a bad attitude. And I reckon that if both we (the motorcyclists) and the police looked at each other from this perspective then the “us-and-them” attitude would disappear and we’d all get along a lot better! And wouldn’t that be better for all concerned?
Okay, I should mention a couple of things here. The first one is that I have had relatives who have been in the police force. And I have to say that they’ve been very reasonable people. Currently there is a guy I meet through my work who is a highway-patrol officer. He’s a very reasonable bloke too. Now, you might think that makes me biased, but I don’t think it does. What it does do is put me in a position of being able to see the issue from both sides; and reinforce the fact that, as I said, police are actually people!
The other thing I should mention is that, at the time of writing anyway, I’ve never actually been booked on a bike! Yes, I’ll admit I’ve often broken the law, (that will be obvious if you’ve read the road-tests!), but my general approach to riding (and driving, for that matter) is to do so in a way that stays "reasonably" within the law. I have been booked in a car though.
I won’t bore you with the details, but the first time was in 1969. The second time was about 12 years later. In both cases what I did was illegal, but was not unsafe. And in both cases the cop writing the ticket did not dispute my statement to this effect. But I was still handed a ticket. The second incident annoyed me a bit, because the cop had been going in the opposite direction, and to catch up with me and stop me so quickly he must have done a quick U-turn across busy traffic – far more dangerous than the illegal turn that I had made! He was pleasant enough though, and even encouraged me to appeal the fine. “With your driving record,” he said, (only one traffic conviction, and that a dozen years previously), “you’ll probably get off with a caution.” I did appeal, and the fine was downgraded to a caution. About 20 years after that I got done by a speed camera.
I have to admit though, that the fact I have incurred only one speeding ticket in over 40 years of motoring is, as I've hinted at already, more due to good luck than it is to having always stayed within the limits! Although on occasions when I have exceeded the speed-limit by a significant amount, I have mostly done so in quiet areas where I’ve been pretty sure there weren’t police about. And it was always done in complete safety. (Umm, if there are any police officers reading this, then, umm, I just made that up, I’ve never really broken the speed-limit at all!).
But back to bikes in particular, and to attitude. If we – and indeed the police – start adopting the “us-and-them” attitude, it will always lead to trouble; and exaggerate any problems that already exist. I’ll give you an example. Do you remember the annual bike races that were held at Bathurst every Easter? That developed into an “us-and-them” situation with the police. Now, I never actually went to those races, so my knowledge of events is really second-hand, but basically it went like this. Quite a few of the crowd who went there used to camp on the mountain. And they’d let off a bit of steam – usually fuelled by more than a bit of alcohol! The police would inevitably come and try to calm things down. Now, from some of the stories I heard, they needed to calm things down! But the trouble was they adopted too strict an approach. They came down hard on anyone who they thought even looked like causing trouble. This up-set the campers somewhat, so they retaliated; by burning stuff. Stuff like the police compound! Not surprisingly, the police weren’t amused by this and came back even harder. The situation escalated to where the police and the bikers were both getting bad press. Something had to be done. From memory, it was the police who, succumbing to pressure from both motorcyclists and the public in general, made the first reconciliatory move; something along the lines of, “Okay boys, we’ll pull back a bit if you just don’t destroy things, okay?” It seemed to work.
Attitude; it’s all about attitude. Talk to almost any police officer and they’ll tell you that the first thing a rider or driver has to do when they're pulled over is to “pass the attitude test”.
There’s a point to realise here that should be a no-brainer, but seems to elude some people. If you’re pulled over because you’ve broken some law, that puts you in the wrong, legally anyway. So you’re at a disadvantage. What happens next can depend on the attitude you take.
I’ll give you an example as told to me by the highway-patrol officer I know. As I said, he’s a very reasonable bloke, and takes a very reasonable approach to people who are just a few clicks over the limit; provided they’re driving or riding safely. He was cruising an expressway with a 110kph limit and clocked a car doing just over 125kph. So he pulled the guy over. He said that at the point of getting out and walking up to the driver he was undecided as to what he was going to do. The guy had been well over the limit, but he’d been driving safely enough, so it was going to depend on what he had to say for himself. A “sorry officer, I didn’t realise, I won’t do it again,” type attitude would probably have seen him get let off with a caution. Instead, as soon as the guy rolled down his window he started mouthing off at the cop, saying – with a few four-letter expletives thrown in – that he should go catch real criminals, stop harassing people, and so on. Naturally enough, the cop instantly wrote out the speeding-ticket; and then looked around the car and managed to give him a defect-notice as well! As I said, police are people, and react as any other people would!
Okay, I know that everyone reading this would have a story to tell. So I’ll tell just a couple of mine; mainly to illustrate my point. The first one is a kind of “bad experience” one, but I’ll tell it because it’s also kind of funny. It concerns a random-breath-test. Now, I’ve been stopped many times (with both car and bike) for a random-breath-test; and whenever I have been, I’ve always tried to be pleasant and cheery towards the police. After all, it only delays your journey by a minute or so, and if it helps keep drunks off the road I’m all for it! And I reckon it’d be a pretty thankless job. So I always give them a smile. And if they end the encounter with a “Have a good day”, I return the greeting; and mean it. I don’t want to see them being given a hard time for keeping potential killers off the road!
But to this particular incident. I was coming home from a short ride when I happened upon a random-breath-test. The cop told me to take off my helmet. That was the first time I’d been asked to do that. Every other police officer has angled the unit down through the helmet to avoid this inconvenience, which I always thought was very considerate of them. So on this occasion I tilted my head forward and pulled down on the lower edge of the helmet. “Is that good enough?” I asked (still being pleasant). He poked the unit over the lower edge of the helmet and grumpily said it was.
Then he asked me for my license. Hmm, a problem! I didn’t have it with me. I must admit that I sometimes don’t carry my wallet with me on the bike if I’m only going out for a short ride. (I think this probably goes back to the time I thought I’d lost my wallet on a trail ride!). “Do you need that?” I asked. The cop gave me a horrified look. “Sir,” he said indignantly, “you’re riding a motorcycle! You need a license to operate any motor vehicle!” I then realised the ambiguity of what I’d said. “Of course, I know that! What I meant was, do you need to see it?” Well, these days it isn’t normal to be asked for your license on an RBT stop, and in fact someone told me that the police didn’t have the right to ask for it unless you’d broken the law. But I wasn’t going to push that argument. “We can ask to see your license any time we want to!” the cop replied; and asked me to produce it. So I had to admit that I didn’t have it. I did have an old one though. The last time I renewed my license, the RTA chopped a piece out of the old one and handed it back saying to keep it in case I lost my wallet etc, so I could use it until I got a new one. And I had put this in a small key-wallet I have for my bike. So I handed him the expired license with the chunk cut out of it. He looked suspiciously at it and asked, “Have you got a current one of these at home?” “Yes, of course!” I replied. “I just forgot to grab the wallet when I left home.” He told me to wait while he did some checks. “Sure.” I said, still trying to be pleasant to him. He was away so long I thought he must have gone to sleep in the car, but eventually he returned and after handing the license back said he would let me off this time but I should always carry my license with me, etc etc. I thanked him and rode off.
During the time I was stopped, there must have been at least a dozen cars pulled in and not one of them was asked to show their license. Was that discrimination against a biker? I don’t know. But that was actually one of the least pleasant exchanges I’ve had with police while riding.
Another, perhaps more typical, incident happened back in my trail-riding days. A mate and I were looking for somewhere to ride, and turned onto an expressway construction site. I knew there was a creek in there, and I thought we might have some fun riding across the creek, do a few jumps coming up the sides etc. Finding the area fenced off, we rode back out to the main road, where we found a police car waiting for us! The cop told us to remove our helmets, and asked to see our licenses. Having complied with these requests, we explained that we were just looking for somewhere to ride, and pleaded ignorance when told we’d ridden into a forbidden area. Now, at this stage the cop could see that we both had registered bikes, were licensed, and were old enough to not be regarded as "young hoons". He said he wouldn’t be taking any action against us, and explained that he’d pulled us over because the police had received complaints from nearby residents about people – mostly young unlicensed riders on unregistered bikes – riding noisily along the expressway site. He told us, quite politely, to keep out of the area, then bid us a cheery farewell as we thanked him and rode away.
You see, as I said, it’s all about attitude; and not being too far on the wrong side of the law. We were off to a good start by not being the young hoons on noisy dirt-bikes the cop probably expected when he first saw the bikes in the distance. So, we weren’t too far on the wrong side of the law. Then, having adopted a polite and contrite attitude, we were quickly on good terms with the cop; and he responded in a friendly manner. He’d done his job by pulling us over, we were appropriately warned for being in an illegal area, and we left on good terms with no fines. A good result for all!
Perhaps the main area of conflict comes with speed. I don't have statistics, but I'd reckon the most common booking motorcyclists get is for speeding. This is partly due, as I mentioned at the start, to the very nature of the motorcycle. And also, it has to be said, to our want to enjoy that nature! But there are some situations here where authority is clearly stacked against us.
Things like speed-cameras; and I mean the ones that are so obviously positioned not in places that have a high potential for accidents, but in places that have a high potential for revenue-raising. And things like people in Victoria getting booked for being 3kph over the limit. I'll have a little rant about things like this in a moment, but I reckon these are examples of "bad attitude" from the authorities! (But, it should be pointed out, not necessarily the police; they don't position the speed-cameras. And as I said at the start, they don't make the laws; they're just called on to enforce them).
But if these things are examples of authority blatantly over-stepping the mark of what might be considered reasonable and fair, then we motorcyclists sometimes over-step the mark too. So, once again, what is needed is a reasonable attitude from both sides.
I'll quote the highway-patrol guy as an example again. He says he knows it’s easy to inadvertently go over the speed-limit by 10 - 15kph; especially on the highway. So he’s willing to let people off with a warning, provided they “pass the attitude-test.” But, as he says, “Anyone who’s doing 20 or 30kph over the limit knows they’re speeding!” And, having intentionally broken the law, they’re going to get booked. See what I mean by not being too far on the wrong side of the law; and about attitude? And even if you do get caught for some “inexcusable” breaking of the law, if you adopt a good attitude towards the cop, it’s always going to end up better than if you get all agro!
Okay, I know there’ll be people reading this who have had encounters with cops where no amount of “good attitude” on their part would have changed the outcome. Just bad-attitude cops out to bring down the motorcyclist for even the most trivial of offences. Cops who don’t care what sort of person you are, don’t want to hear any explanation, but just want to write out the ticket and chalk up another statistic for the day. There are cops like that. But from my experience, and from what I hear from others, including the police, they are the exception rather than the rule. They really are. And in general, they’re disliked by the police as much as they are by the public!
If you’re unfortunate enough to encounter one of these “exceptions”, then put it down to a bad-attitude individual; just as you would when you encounter the surly young thing on the check-out, the smart-arse shop-assistant, the … well, you know what I mean. As I said back near the start of all this, there are bad-attitude people in all walks of life. Yep, even amongst motorcyclists!
Now, I can’t end this without saying that there are a lot of things I object to! I object to over-enforcement of speed-limits (people in Victoria know all about that!). And I object to unrealistically low speed-limits (plenty of those around!). And I object to those particular speed-cameras I mentioned (we’ve all seen those, haven’t we!). And I could go on! But, none of these really creates an “us-and-them” situation with regards to the police. Even in the case of over-enforcement of the law, it’s not really the police who are “at fault”; they’re just doing the job they’ve been given to do. And as I said before, often they actually object to the same things we do.
So treat the police as fellow human-beings; because that’s what they are! Adopt a good attitude towards them and you’ll probably get a good attitude back.
“Us-and-them” isn’t a natural situation; it’s a situation that is created by a bad attitude from one or both sides of the encounter that is then seen to be a general rule rather than an exception.
And if we care about the image of motorcycling, and if we want encounters with police to be as amicable as possible, then we can do our part by making sure the bad attitude doesn’t come from us. And in most cases the cops will be trying to do the same thing; because they care about their image too, and they (mostly, anyway) want their dealings with the motoring public to be amicable. It’s only the odd bad-attitude cop who doesn’t want to take this approach. And there are always going to be those sort of “one-percenters” in the police force. Just like there are with motorcyclists, actually!
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