As mentioned in a previous story, Whitemouth Manitoba was my first posting upon graduation from the RCMP training “Depot” in Regina, Saskatchewan, and by May of 1977 I was in a very comfortable personal and professional groove. A policeman for four years and married for almost three, Terry and I were very happy and socially active in the community and both of us were fully comfortable in our careers, she as the regional public heath nurse and I as one of three regional law enforcement officers.
Early May in Whitemouth Detachment area was the best time of year, and on this particular Wednesday afternoon the wonderful fresh spring day was sunny and warm. The gloom of winter had passed and the highways had long since lost their inconsistent coats of ice and sandy grit. Drivers could again have faith that a snowy shoulder or black-ice sheen would not alter their destined path along the course of their voyage. Vehicular traffic was historically light at this time of year. The Whiteshell Provincial Park was in a hiatus between winter sporting activities and the opening of summer cottages and seasonal campgrounds. The park belonged to the caretakers at this time of year. It was a time to explore the region unencumbered by seasonal residents and weekend visitors; a time of year to appreciate the beauty of the numerous lakes, rivers and waterfalls sheltered in the geography of the Canadian Shield. In a few short weeks that would all change. The predominance of flora and fauna would be replaced by accident-prone and unruly “city-folk” out for the season, the weekend or just for “a ride”, and our enjoyment of the short-lived solitude would be held in abeyance until fall.
But on this day, all was well in the world. I was sitting in my police car in Seven Sisters Manitoba, a small town and gateway to the Whiteshell Provincial Park; home to one of six hydroelectric generating stations that punctuated the Winnipeg River along its 146 mile long journey from Kenora, Ontario to Lake Winnipeg. Tucked away on the side of the road, I was operating radar, hoping to catch speeders exceeding the posted speed limit of 30 mph. It was a day where drivers could easily become complacent; lulled into a state where judgment is impaired and the risk of accident raised. I was poised and ready to catch them in this relaxed state as they rushed the last few miles to the peace and tranquility of cottage country.
While the RCMP had dedicated highway patrol enforcement officers, Whitemouth was not a location that housed this expertise. Radar enforcement within our detachment area was voluntary and conducted as other duties permitted. In other words, a quiet and sunny day was a timely moment to hook up the radar set and go hunting for speeders. Plus, the boss was always happy to increase his provincial enforcement statistics, and if the boss was happy, everyone was a beneficiary of his happiness and good nature.
Our radar set was old, a legacy black box Decatur model, with a big silver radar head connected to the set by a long thick black cord. The speed indicator was a needle that swayed up and down a graduated scale showing increments of speed. While the general accuracy was verified before each use through the physical testing of the device using a tuning fork, locking the speed of a violator was a somewhat arbitrary process. The saving grace; mistakes due to technology always favoured the “speeder”. Longing for a state-of-the-art digital radar set that worked even in transit situations, I was entrusted only with a dated mechanical instrument that was one step away from a spare parts’ bin.
In police parlance, parallax error denotes differences or mistakes that can occur when signals are sent and received at an increased angle. In radar speed enforcement, the most accurate reading occurs when the radar is aimed directly in line with an oncoming vehicle. For that best-case scenario to occur, the police car would obviously be in plain view and that, arguably, would be counter-productive to effective traffic enforcement. Arguably, in that some might proffer that a police car in plain sight would deter speeders rather than trying to catch them. It was none-the-less my decision on that day to consider my boss’s happiness over that of the motoring public.
To decrease the parallax error, I mounted the radar head on the front hood of the police car, trapping it between the hood and the fender of the vehicle and running the black cord down the side of the fender and into the side passenger window where it was then hooked into the black box radar set. This allowed me to park the police car perpendicular to the highway with just the nose-edge of the vehicle and the head of the radar set facing parallel to the oncoming traffic. Parallax error resolved; maximum violator speed assured! I was ready and in wait of my first transgressor.
Provincial law directed that speeders travelling up to 10 miles an hour over the speed limit not be charged; a grace period so to speak. And while this seemed fair to me in a 60 mph zone, travellers passing through Seven Sisters at 10 mph over the limited were, in my opinion, going too fast for the conditions of the town. Given that government direction, however, during the first ½ hour of set-up, I only scared all drivers who passed speeding through my trap. While even though their guilty minds caused them to step on the brake peddle in panicked realization of their perceived capture, I could do no more than watch them pass by. I was losing patience and gaining frustration when my gift arrived.
The radar needle sprang quickly through the dial, clearly past the indicator line of 40, then bounced down only to quickly rise again. Confused I leaned forward in my seat in an attempted quest to look at what was coming down the road. But as concealed as I was from oncoming traffic, traffic was also concealed from me. Continuing, the needle bounced around erratically before holding steady on a speed of 52 mph. Locking the reading into the instrument, I saw the vehicle pass, a red two door import, male driver. But wait, directly behind, bumper to bumper, another blue 4-door vehicle followed, woman driving. I pulled out behind them and activated my roof lights, gaining on them and hoping to pull them both to the side of the road but realistically expecting to stop only the one. Amazed! They both stopped. Bingo!
Pulling in behind the tail blue car, I donned my hat and emerged from the police car. As I approached the first vehicle, I straightened my shirt and adjustment my gun-belt, both of which had become disheveled through slouched inactivity in the car while watching ineligible speeders pass. I was excited to have caught two at once, a first time occurrence for me that made the long afternoon wait worthwhile. I approached the driver’s window as the young woman driver rolled down her window and met my gaze. Shifting my look to the front car I noticed the male driver watching me in his rear view mirror. I raised my hand as a signal for him to remain on the shoulder of the highway, and I refocused back on my first contact.
“Good afternoon, can I see your driver’s license and registration please?”
The driver broke my gaze and reached over, opened the glove box and retrieved a small plastic folder. Taking the vehicle registration from the folder she handed me the document along with her driver’s license that she had somehow quietly extricated from her purse and spoke, “Is there a problem officer?”
“Yes, you were just clocked through radar, do you know how fast you were going?”
“No, not really, I was just following the car ahead of me.”
Glibly I responded, “Well that is not the best way to drive, just following the car ahead of you without considering what’s around you. How do you know the driver ahead of you is a good driver?”
“He’s my husband”, she smiled sheepishly.
Taken aback momentarily I regained my composure and remarked with perhaps just a hint of sarcastic tone,
“That’s your husband ahead of you?”
With nervous excitement in her voice and displaying an animated demeanour she responded, “Yes, we both work at different jobs in the city. Tonight we are going to his parent’s place at Eleanor Lake. They live there year round and it’s his mother’s birthday. We’re going for a birthday supper there and staying overnight. I’m heading back to Winnipeg in the morning and he’s staying to help his dad tomorrow. I didn’t know he was speeding. I was just following him. I’m really sorry!”
Responding to her nervous account, I voiced back, “Please stay in the car, I’ll be right back.”
I moved forward on the shoulder of the highway to the driver’s window of the red car. The male driver had already rolled down his window, and with registration and license in hand, he twisted in his seat to meet me in my approach.
“Hi,” he said.
Taking the documents I verified his story with that of his wife’s. Unable to contain his angst he finally asked, “How fast was I going?”
“You mean, how fast were “we” going?”
“I guess. Are we both getting a ticket?”
“You were both travelling 52 mph in a posted 30 mph zone. That’s 22 miles an hour over the limit. Quite fast for the town you know.”
“Yeah, I know and I’m sorry. We were excited to see my Mom and I was thinking about other things. My wife never speeds. She was just following me. Can you give her a break?” (Chivalry is not dead, I thought)
“Stay in the car, I’ll be back,” I responded to him and again to her as I passed her window and got back into my car and called the RCMP telecommunications section on my car radio.
“XJL-201 Winnipeg, Whitemouth car 681.”
Providing the names and birth dates for both drivers, I waited for a response on any outstanding warrants or other negative information from various North American law enforcement data-bases on either of the young adults. While waiting, I took the male driver’s plea into consideration. While the woman was clearly influenced by her husband’s lead it was no excuse to inattentively breach the Highway Traffic Act. Additionally, why should she be spared sanction at the expense of her husband? Such uneven application of the law could bring the administration of justice into disrepute. Plus, I had two tickets in hand and no more expected as my afternoon shift was nearing its end. While decisions are easy to make, problems are harder to solve, and I was looking at this as a problem, perhaps even as an ethical question whose answer would hopefully give clarity to my decision.
“Whitemouth car 681, XJL201 Winnipeg. Both subject checks are negative.”
Leaving the car I approached the female driver who was patiently waiting in anticipation.
Addressing her by her first name and handing her documents through the window I declared, “You both shouldn’t suffer for the actions of one. Slow down the next time coming through here and pay attention to your driving, not someone else’s. Have a good day.”
“Thank you.” She replied, relieved.
As I approached the male driver I saw a look of hope in his eyes when he saw his license and registration in my hand, but no other papers or documents.
Handing him his license and registration I spoke, “You both shouldn’t suffer for the actions of one. Slow down the next time you come through here, take your wife out for dinner this weekend for compromising her good driving record and wish your mother happy birthday for me.”
He smiled. I smiled. Then I turned and walked away.
I have no doubt that this experience was recounted by both of the drivers to a variety of audiences for perhaps many years following this occurrence. Their recounting of the experience was hopefully more of a positive deterrent to future travellers passing through Seven Sisters and portrayed a more positive image of law enforcement than that time in history nourished. At least to me, that hope was more valuable than two traffic statistics on that warm sunny day in May.