Laugh, Cry, Live

Pondering the emotional side of life, beginning to end.

The $400 Speeding Ticket: Processing Emotional Burn

It takes time to move through emotional burn and reach a state of acceptance.

I just paid a $400 photo radar speeding ticket. Like, minutes ago. I do believe this adventure warrants a blog post…

A few weeks back, I receive a letter. D.C. Metropolitan Police? I was there several months ago on business. What the crap? I open it. “Notice of Infraction.” My heart sinks.

There’s a color picture of my rental car as it drives away from the photo radar camera. I’m in the center lane.  Baltimore/Washington Parkway, near Eastern Avenue. Midday on a Monday, sunny skies, not much traffic. I don’t remember speeding. No hurry, just going with the flow of traffic, feeling my way to Union Station. Was I going 5 over? Or something else equally banal?

What? 60 in a 35? How could the B/W Parkway be 35 mph? It’s a six-lane divided highway for crying out loud! Construction zone? There are no lane closures, no equipment, and no workers, at least on my side of the highway.

Curses! I’ve been captured by a speed trap. I envision a desperate city council cooking up this unethical scheme: “I know! Let’s put up a teensy-weensy sign that says ‘35 mph, construction zone.’ Then we can snag people for speeding and double the fine. That’ll help mediate our fiscal woes!” They twist their waxy mustaches and cackle.

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$400?!? Are you kidding me with this?

My amygdala (the brain’s seat of emotional reactions) lights up like Las Vegas. My pulse races. My gut tightens. I feel violated, harshly punished for unintentional criminal activity. I may have broken the law, but I wasn’t unethical. I endangered no one!

What now? My amygdala seethes into a slow burn.  My strategy: Put this dastardly document in a visible spot on the kitchen counter. I’ll pay the vile ticket when the emotional burn has subsided. Then it won’t be so excruciating.

For the next 2 weeks it taunts me from its perch. Each time I see it, I process more.

I rant about the injustice. I lick the wounds of my righteous indignation.  I entertain the “what if’s.” What if I’d taken an earlier exit?  What if I’d been in a different lane? What if I’d been traveling in a pack that’d had the savvy to slow down?

I stew about the financial burden. This ghastly fine destroys my attempt to pare down travel expenses. I pride myself on frugality. The damn car was from Budget, after all!

Ten days in, my prefrontal cortex (reasoning, judgment, problem-solving) is ready to take the reins from my now smoky amygdala. I get online and Google “D.C. photo radar.” Apparently I’m not the only one. I read the threads. Half the folks chiming in say “Fight it!” The other half says “Pay it and move on with your life.”

I do the math. I’d have to spend hours composing the perfect protest letter, pleading who knows what? Then I’d have to tolerate the protracted suspense as I awaited adjudication, with absolutely no guarantee of favorable results.

I already know I don’t have the time or energy to fight it. What is my time worth? Where would I rather spend my energy? I read on. There are books that divulge surefire secrets to beating this rap. There are sprays and transparent license plate covers that reflect light, rendering them illegible to The Man.

Bottom line, I’m guilty. Lucky for me, I wasn’t going 80. I usually hang out in the left lane, with the other lead-footed motorists.

So my prefrontal cortex begins to justify paying it. It’s my “fee” for the privilege of typically going faster than the average bear. It’s my “club dues” for being an efficient driver who keeps traffic moving (traffic flows according to the laws of fluid dynamics, and lane changers actually speed the flow. You’re welcome.) If I had to do something “accidental” with this car, at least no one was injured and no property was damaged. Well, except for my misery, arrested heart, and ruffled feathers…

Thirteen days in, I bring the ticket upstairs to my office to pay it online. I’m resigned. The ticket has lost its emotional punch. My amygdala is over it. I’ve moved through the shock, dismay, anger, helplessness. This incident has departed from center stage and my prefrontal cortex files it where it belongs, under Oh well, it could’ve been worse.  It happened, I accept it, and it’s time to chuck it off my to-do list.

But still, I put it off. My touchy amygdala now has to adjust to the idea of letting go of $400. That’s a lot of money. It would pay for this upcoming December’s heating bill. Two round trip discount airfares.  Four dance workshop weekends. Eight volleyballs. Ten tanks of gas. And a partridge in a pear tree.

Today, 15 days in, I pay it. I’m downright nonchalant. Here’s the emotional deal I’ve mediated between my amygdala and prefrontal cortex. This $400 is my generous donation to the coffers of D.C., which by the way is a city beautiful; chock full of history, architecture, culture, diversity, and free museums. It was a privilege to visit monuments honoring presidents, veterans, and citizens. I drank in the beauty of the Library of Congress and marveled at the grandeur of the Capitol Building and its grounds.  Most thrilling of all, in the Rose Garden of the White House, I saw Bo, the beautiful Obama dog, taking a leak in the grass. That alone makes it worth every penny. 

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and author of 6 books, including one about perinatal hospice titled A Gift of Time.

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