Red stilettos. A black bodysuit. Hair straightened, curled, gelled, and piled higher than Dolly Parton’s blonde locks. The girl sashays down to the front of the room, lost in thoughts of an imaginary catwalk and an adoring audience, until she’s rudely awakened by the disconcerting question reverberating through the vast room:

“Traffic school or the fine?”

“Oh, um, school.”

When I was pulled over for speeding earlier this year, I wrote myself a one-way ticket into the local traffic court and spent half an hour navigating the hurdles and who’s whos of juvenile infractions.

There were many showstoppers.

There was the prim and proper convent girl—carefully fitted into a business suit—who was stopped for driving over 100 mph and had the audacity to contest the charge. There was simply no way she could talk her way out of it, and yet her mother even came up to the stand to support and protect her daughter.

“My daughter has something to say in her defense,” the defiant mother said to the judge. What could she say? From what I heard, her daughter had torn up the road like famed NASCAR racer Jeff Gordon.

I, on the other hand, steered down streets like a grandma. When I took my driver’s license test, I got eight points off for driving too slowly. I was told that I might “impede traffic.” At a four-way stop sign, I’m normally the first person at the intersection … and the last.

On the day I received my speeding ticket, just four months after receiving my license, my internal engine sputtered and fizzled out when I saw the cop lurch forward on his motorcycle, ready to pounce. Sitting in traffic court that day, I could imagine how the boy who went up to the stand before me must have felt when he, too, saw flashing lights in the rear view mirror of his car.

This boy looked like the stereotypical model child: clean-cut and carrying a physics book to the court. And yet here he was, looking distraught and confused as he stood in front of the judge, sporting just a plain white t-shirt and khaki cargo pants. Eyes downcast, he slouched and awaited his charges. I questioned the justice system in that moment, asking why a future college student and apparent well-behaved son needed to be punished. If the policeman had just taken a look at his transcript, he couldn’t have written him a ticket, could he? I know insurance companies often look at a student’s grades in order to give customers discounts.

I found myself squirming when my turn came to take center stage. Was I really a criminal? A juvenile delinquent? I couldn’t help but wonder what I, of all people, was doing in a courtroom. I’d brought my security blanket (otherwise known as the black sweatshirt I so proudly wore as a member of my school newspaper), hoping that the judge would sympathize with me and realize that someone who wears black sweatshirts advertising the “coolness” of her school newspaper during the height of summer deserved to go scot-free. Wasn’t there an unwritten clause for a good kid who’d just had a bad day? Wasn’t there an ocean of a difference between me and the callous juvenile offender who was in court for the 100th time?

I recognized the repeat offender’s nonchalance the minute he entered the courtroom. The favorite of the police was back. I’d heard about this kid who’d crashed a couple of luxury cars. He ambled down toward the judge, listened to the charges, asked for traffic school and turned around, ready to bolt out of the room.

“Wait a minute. I think you have yet another ticket!”

“Oh, yeah,” he mumbled, turning back towards the stand. How had I ended up in the same room as this guy?

In a span of just half an hour, I’d been witness to a pageant of fellow juvenile miscreants. During one court session, at 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, about 30 teenagers had been charged for speeding, possession of open cases of alcohol, and for not producing proof of insurance or registration. I realized that thousands of teenagers were given tickets everyday, paying for their small mistakes and missteps, and that I had just become another statistic.

It’s comforting to know that many others are in the same situation as I am, but at the same time, it also makes me wonder about teenagers in general. Do we ever stop to think of the consequences of our supposedly small actions? It’s so easy to do what everyone else is doing, forgetting that the one time we choose to break the law may be the precise moment that we get caught.

Just one lapse in judgment can result in a pile-up of problems. Most teen drivers have driven minors while still under the rules of a provisional license, so I’ve never thought it a big deal to do so. Some people have actually told me that so many police officers encounter teenagers breaking that law that many won’t even give a citation for the violation. But they very well could. And consider my situation: I don’t generally speed, and I know that police officers won’t pull me over unless I give them reason to. I trust my own driving ability. But I’m still not sure what happened that day. I was complacent. I found out how the smallest actions come with a huge price tag, even if “everyone else” seems to be doing it.

My mistake actually cost me a grade. That afternoon, after the cop pulled me over, I came into a final exam late, frazzled by what my parents would say when they found out. I couldn’t focus during the test. I thought I’d never be allowed to drive again. I was petrified that my car keys would be revoked. I thought our insurance was going to hit the roof, that I’d actually be lucky if I wasn’t taken off the insurance. I thought my parents would lose complete trust in me.

For the girl in the red stilettos, the model child, and myself, the lesson learned that day in court was the same: with being handed the keys to a car comes a great responsibility. Driving is a privilege—and, from what I’m learning this year, also a great burden.

Pavithra Mohan is a freshman at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

 

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