Australia is my fifth continent in just about three months, making it country number 31 in my travels. Through the course of my journey a few themes have echoed from the voices of those who I have met. For starters, most people inquire as to the duration of my holiday. It is a tough thing to explain that you are not on vacation but rather this is your lifestyle. Most people, regardless of country of origin, have trouble with the concept of intentionally making yourself homeless in the pursuit of a greater truth.
The other common exchange that I tend to find myself in is the fact that, overwhelmingly, the citizens of the United States do not frequently leave the comfort of their own country, making me a bit of an anomaly.
Due to this fact people from the states are often labeled as ignorant to the happenings throughout the world. In recent months I have adopted a sort of “ambassador” mentality as I travel and interact with people who haven’t had previous contact with many Americans. More than once a person’s opinion of my home has been tainted by a news story, sight unseen. It’s not just a sense of national pride that makes me take offense to such narrow mindedness that any nation’s population collectively shares the same work ethic or geopolitical belief set. It is as ignorant as a thought or statement can be.
I believe vehemently that every person, regardless of where they are from, should travel and experience the world through their own senses rather than relying on the contorted, second hand opinions of others. That being said, I am about to do something that I thought I would never do. I am going to defend Americans that have not and will not leave the United States.
Yesterday I decided to rent a small van and drive the east coast of Australia. Adapting to the steering wheel being on the opposite side of the vehicle and the vehicle needing to drive on the opposite side of the road was simple enough. Converting kilometers to miles in my head was not a new concept and came easily. What I was unprepared for was the flashing red and blue lights that illuminated my rear view mirror at just past 10 o’clock this morning as I drove 5kph under the speed limit through a quiet residential neighborhood.
At first I thought that the van that I rented had a brake light out or something of that nature. Without removing his full-face helmet, the motorcycle officer approached my vehicle and requested my driver’s license. Had I been in the U.S. I would have asked him if I had been suspected of committing a crime while videotaping our interaction prior to showing any identification. Being less than familiar with the laws in Australia regarding these matters I chose to comply respectfully, addressing the officer as “Sir” and producing everything that he requested.
“You went past me with your seatbelt off back there.” He mumbled through the face mask on his helmet.
“Yes, sir. I usually don’t wear it.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from the U.S., Sir”
“How long have you been here?”
“Not long at all sir, I rented this van yesterday.”
“It is against the law to not wear a seat belt here.”
“Really? Hmm. I apologize sir. I honestly did not realize that. I haven’t seen any signs.”
“Well, you’re getting a ticket regardless. It’s against the law. This will only be a second, I will be right back.”
I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know a single officer in the United States that would actually issue more than a warning for that offense, let alone have it be the sole reason for stopping someone. T
he quick second turned into a couple of minutes when I noticed the officer arguing with a cyclist that was passing by. I had to laugh as, without removing his helmet, the officer verbally thrashed another grown man for riding his bike on the sidewalk.
He brandished the ticket book and was about to issue another absurd citation. The offending party apologized profusely and explained that he was having a bad day and was allowed to continue on as long as he walked his bike. He was told that he was not allowed to ride without a helmet.
At this point I began to look for a hidden camera. This has to be a joke. Through the van’s side mirror I could see him writing out my ticket. Not more than thirty seconds later a woman passed by on an old cruiser bicycle. For the second time the uniformed man stopped in the middle of writing my fine to harass a citizen for riding on the sidewalk. After an exchange the woman changed paths and was made to ride with the traffic in the now busy road. You have to be kidding me! This guy still hasn’t shown his face to the last three people that he has stopped. So far not one has actually created anything close to a hazard for anyone else.
The third and final cyclist that he stopped was a little old woman who was riding in the street without a helmet on. The masked man harassed her for a few minutes before making her pull a helmet from her bag and put it on before being allowed to continue the rest of her 400-meter trip to the market. When the civil servant returned to the driver’s side window of my rented car he bestowed upon me a ticket, a ticket for $311 dollars.
Anyone that knows me understands how difficult it is to render me speechless. That did the trick.
“That… that is a lot of money, sir!”
“Yeah, but not wearing your seatbelt is a serious offense.”
“Really? How’s that?”
“We have four main causes of personal injury in this area; drinking and driving, fatigued drivers, speeding and people not wearing seat belts.”
“I understand the first three because of potential danger to others but I am not asking anyone else to assume any possible harm if I don’t wear a seat belt.”
“You could get hurt if you don’t.”
“That is my choice though. Just like it was those people’s choice who weren’t wearing helmets. All four of us are adults and assume the responsibility of our own actions as a result. Any amount is egregious to fine a private citizen for making a choice that impacts only their own well-being but over three hundred dollars is beyond egregious, it is asinine, sir.”
“Well, in the last 24 years I have seen seat belts save lives. They keep you safe.”
“I’m sure that you have. I could note personal experiences as a firefighter and EMT when not wearing a seat belt actually saved a couples life. That, however, is not the point. I could talk about all of the times I collected a paycheck from the government for doing something a thousand times more dangerous to my own safety than this but I won’t. In the 300 or so kilometers that I have driven in this country so far I haven’t seen one single warning or sign stating that not wearing a seat belt is a fineable offense. I explained to you that I don’t have a problem wearing one while I am in your country now that I know that it is considered to be such a terrible thing and I am asking you if this can be a warning since I was unaware of the law. I presented no danger to anyone else with my actions.”
“Here is your ticket. There is a website on the back if you want to complain.”
The man without a face returned to his patrol bike and sped off.
While I was not happy with how my morning was starting, I am also not of the opinion that the officer was abusing the power that was bestowed upon him. He was simply enforcing a law, which he admitted to having no control over. I do believe, however, that no reasonable argument could be made in defense of the validity of said law. Here is why, there is no inherent risk to the life, liberty or pursuit of happiness of any other human being.
Why do we have laws? We have them to protect citizens. Shouldn’t that protection extend to the individuals themselves? No. If an adult of legal age chooses with a clear mind and sound knowledge of potential repercussion to engage in an activity that will in no way create harm to others but has a potential to create harm in themselves that is their right.
Eating copious amounts of refined sugar has been directly linked with diabetes, a disease that kills XX more people a year than collisions involving unrestrained drivers. Not only does the government not fine you outrages amounts for consuming toxic substances, they actually subsidize them, making them easier to access.
If a person drives drunk they are presenting a known hazard to others, which is why there is a law against it. It is not legal to discharge a firearm into the air because of the potential to hurt or kill another person. I can’t legally walk up and strike another human being without legal reprisal because my freedom to do what I want ends at the starting point of the freedoms of those who surround me. I can, however, smoke a cigarette despite the fact that it will kill me. As long as I don’t do it around other people, inevitably putting those at risk without consent.
The creation of and enforcement of such a law delegitimizes the nature of law enforcement. Do we need laws? Yes. Do we need those laws to be enforced? Absolutely. Do we need agencies creating restrictions on our personal freedoms for the sole purpose of generating income for the state? No, but that is the only reason I was pulled over today. The government mismanages its resources then extorts more from its citizens, or in this case its tourists.
The difference when it happens outside of the United States to a US citizen is significant. Without any substantial knowledge of the legal system, due process or the constitution of a nation it is close to impossible to defend yourself. Furthermore, what would be considered absolutely laughable in the United States is apparently completely normal in other countries.
That is what traveling is all about though I suppose. It is about identifying the various nuances and idiosyncrasies of other nations and cultures. It can be dreadfully annoying at times, a bit overwhelming and apparently quite costly. All being legitimate reasons to stay home where you know the rules and where you know it’s safe. Personally, I’m going to take the $311 ticket, frame it next to the letter banning me from Notre Dame University for life and the speeding ticket I got on my bicycle for going 48 in a 25 and chalk it up as another expensive life lesson.
Buckle up kids, big brother is watching.
*An interesting side note: I happened to share this story with a gentleman that I met later in the day. He told me that the reason the man didn’t remove his helmet was because Australian motorcycle police have a mandated video camera mounted in them. In fact, the majority of all police in this country do. This may be the reason why, regardless of how polite I was and explained the nature of the situation that I was not let off with a warning.
An interesting weight to add to the debate on if this is a prudent thing to institute in departments throughout the US as suggested by my fellow Havok Journal writer, Leonard Benton. Regardless of the laws complete lack of logic or how much it violates a simple personal liberty it must be enforced by an officer who is being watched. Without the ability to interject logic into a situation, robots may as well police us… It seems to work out well in all the movies I’ve seen.