Thunder Road: A Jersey Driver’s Run-In With the Law

You learn a lot about New Jersey drivers’ reputation once you cross state lines.

We New Jerseyans are often pegged as aggressive, short fused, and shall we say vulger, both on the road and off. How many times have we spat out our most colorful vocabulary at a jerk who drove on the shoulder just to cut us off? How many times have we been that very jerk?

Whether it’s the labyrinth of traffic circles and jughandles in north Jersey, or weaving through trucks on the Turnpike, I believe learning to drive in New Jersey has equipped me with the skills to drive anywhere. I consider myself an above-average driver. I obey regional traffic laws, I use the left lane for passing, and like all New Jerseyans, I only speed when I’m positive there isn’t a cop around. These skills came in handy during my road trip to North Carolina, where I learned that no one knows how to merge south of the Mason Dixon line.

On our way home, my friends and I had a very important mission: eating the greatest fried chicken on the planet (at the Michie Tavern in Charlottesville, Virginia). We were on the clock, as the restaurant was closing at 3:30 p.m. and we already had a late start. We were making great progress—shaving nearly half an hour off our arrival time. When we neared the state line, we came upon a sheriff’s car in the right hand lane. Like any cautious driver who was also maybe dying of starvation, I signaled, moved into the left lane, passed, and returned to the right lane. Laws were abided, fried chicken was soon to be had. Everything was going so well.

Until the squad car’s light’s went on.

The sheriff sidled up to my window, and was every bit the stereotype—wide brim cap, dark aviators, a salt-and-pepper mustache that consumed his upper lip, and an accent straight out of a Tennessee Williams play.

“Y’all know the speed limit?” he asked, eyeing my license.

“70,” I answered, because I am ever vigilant for road signs.

“And y’all know how fast you were goin’?”

“Uh, 73?”

“I was goin’ 72, and you passed me,” he said. “Why? Why did y’all pass me? Why?!”

Completely flustered, I couldn’t do more than sputter something about staying with 5 mph of the speed limit. The sheriff strolled back to his car to run my information. My friends and I agonized over my potential infraction. Was there some North Carolina law prohibiting civilians from passing an officer of the law? Five minutes went by, then 10, 15. The GPS estimated time of arrival ticked ever higher. I imagined us arriving at the restaurant mere seconds after it closed, forced to watch other, punctual patrons enjoy their meals with our faces pressed to the windows. After what felt like weeks, the sheriff returned. My clean driving record bailed me out, of course.

"I’m sorry—" I started, but before I could finish my sentence with, "but I don’t understand what I did wrong," he cut me off.

“No need to apologize,” he said. “You better be careful next time. I used to drive trucks in Jersey, I know how you people drive!”

And that’s when it hit me. I was pulled over for the mere crime of having Jersey plates.

It took every ounce of self restraint to not yell back, “Yeah, we drive well!”

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