Letter to the Right, Honourable Lord Mayor

Traffic Deity of Elizabeth Street
Traffic Deity of Elizabeth Street

To the Right Honourable Lord Mayor:

We are currently hosting an exchange student from America and have enjoyed showing him our corner of Australia, billed by you as the country’s “most liveable”.

Two weeks ago, he planned to meet some friends in the city for a movie on the same night as my daughter, who is his age, had a rehearsal for a school concert.  Ordinarily, my teenage kids and their guests are independent and use public transportation to get around.  On this occasion, however, since my daughter was going in another direction and our visitor was still unfamiliar with the city, I weighed it up and decided to brave the traffic and drop the young man at Queen Street before looping around to my daughter’s school.

As I approached Albert Street, I slowed, uncertain where to pull up.

“There’s Borders,” he exclaimed happily, “and Hungry Jack’s is over there.  I know exactly where I am.”

Magically, the light at the intersection turned red; our young American jumped out with a smile; moments later the light turned green, and my daughter and I continued on to Spring Hill.

A week later, I received a $120.00 fine in the mail.  Apparently, I was “impeding the flow of traffic in a clearway”.  At a red light.  When traffic was stopped.    Apparently, too, and most disturbingly, it is a law in this city that those entrusted to ‘keep the peace’ can also write out tickets whenever, wherever, without any contact with the so-called offenders, and conveniently stick them in the mail.

I stared at the ticket and thought of Big Brother.  Or perhaps there’s an invisible traffic god on Elizabeth Street.


The next day, my fourteen year old son was at a nearby suburban mall when an older boy threatened to ‘jab’ him unless he ‘payed up’.  My son ordinarily doesn’t have much money on him, but that day he did.  He gave the bully $50.00 he’d gotten for his birthday.  My son later told me  he thought he’d better, since the same punk had beaten up a friend because his wallet was empty.

When he heard the story, our exchange student, who happens to be from an area just outside New York City, was wide-eyed and appalled.  “I know stuff like that goes on in America, but it never happened to me or anyone I know.  And I live in a pretty rough place.”

I made an appointment to discuss the incident with the police.  After all, I don’t want my son to walk in fear; neither do I want any other child to be so intimidated.  I had to first pick my son up from his school.  Coming from an unfamiliar direction on back roads, I was peering at street signs, occupied with the idea I needed to cross train tracks but uncertain how to do so.  Perhaps I didn’t signal enough ahead of my left turn, but the next thing I knew, I was being pulled over by a traffic officer on a scooter.

I don’t remember much of the conversation.  At first, confident I had done nothing egregious—I wasn’t speeding or weaving erratically—I welcomed the chance to speak to a knowledgeable representative of Australia’s most liveable city.  As the officer approached my car, I had the expectation he would politely tell me I should signal more in advance of a turn, or that I had a burned out tail-light, or something else of little consequence.  I would thank him for the information, then I would ask for directions on how to cross the railroad tracks, he’d tell me, and we would say good-bye.

Within thirty seconds, though, he had demeaned me in tone, words and manner, and I was using all my energy to hold back tears.  He asked me for my driver’s license.  I reached into my wallet and gave him the card.

“Well, this is a fine likeness,” he sneered, “but it doesn’t happen to be a driver’s license.  That will be green and white.  If you even have a driver’s license.”

In my haste, I had given him my university I.D.  I dove back into my wallet and scrambled to find the license.

The traffic cop shook his head.  “Slack.”

With that, I’d had all I could take.  I began to explain about the bully at the shopping mall who extorted fifty bucks from my son, and the constable I was on my way to meet, and how I didn’t usually drive to my son’s school the back way, and that I didn’t normally get pulled over, and that I didn’t even know why I had been pulled over.  And because I was emotionally distraught over the situation with my son, facing this bullying officer of the law, the floodgates opened.  I’m ashamed to say, I began to cry.

He cleared his throat.  “Well, take some deep breaths and get your son then.”  With that, he backed away, got on his scooter, and cruised off.

I sat there bewildered.  I looked into my lap for a ticket, but there was none. (Of course, that in itself is not meaningful; it’s conceivable one will arrive in the mail.  But at least, then, I will know what I did wrong.)

While I calmed down, a few cars snaked past, the drivers sending sympathetic looks.  I realised then the officer had pulled me over in such a way that we had been blocking the road.  If I had done that on my own, the great eye of the traffic god would most certainly have turned punishing, but the cop on the scooter seemed to care nothing about impeding the flow of traffic.

I meandered for awhile, found the way across the tracks and up the hill to the school; my son was waiting.

He looked at my face.  “What happened?”

I told him.

I added, “You know, it doesn’t make sense.  The constable I spoke to this morning, the one we have the appointment with, has been so nice.  But the guy on the scooter was nothing but a big bully.”

“Yeah,” my son answered with a note of worldliness, “they just send those guys out to get money.  You crossed his path, so he stopped you. He was going keep talking to you until he found something to give you a ticket for.  That’s how they do it.”

Considering the errand we were on, it wasn’t difficult to see the parallels.  We drove the rest of the way in silence.

fat cop

At our family dinner that night, we spoke about justice and intimidation.

“There has to be a reason to pull someone over in America.  Just cause.  Otherwise, they can’t,” our American contributed.

“I thought it was like that here, too.”

“Just forget about it,” my husband recommended.  “It’s simply a revenue stream for the city’s coffers.”

“What good are my ‘contributions’ if I’m afraid to drive there because of mercenary laws and cameras that double as ticket printers.  There’s no available street parking, parking garages are exorbitant, which would be okay if public transportation ran frequently, but it doesn’t.  You can’t even drop anyone off.  And you can get pulled over, not be told why, and be badgered until you cry.”

“You can’t enjoy a place if you can’t get there,” someone said.

“Or if you’re afraid of being punished when you are there.”

“It’s fascist,” offered a teenager who is studying 20th century history.

“ Like the brownshirts. Like the Stazi,” said one of the others.

“Like the bad kid at the shopping mall,” chimed the baby of the family, who shouldn’t know about this at all.

bus shelter no bus

That was three nights ago.  My daughter just called from the bus stop where she and our American exchange student have been waiting for more than twenty minutes.  The bus hasn’t come and the next one isn’t due for nearly an hour.

“We were ten minutes early, just to be safe,” she exclaims.  “And now I’m going to be late for my piano lesson.”

I agree to pick her up.  I have no doubt, when I pull over and these two exasperated teenagers hop into the car, I’ll be doing something wrong.  I catch myself hoping it’s the Orwellian traffic deity and not the legally empowered bully on the scooter who spies me in my crime.  And then I recognise that cowardly wish is against every democratic principle I believe in; and I understand that the invisible authority and the strongman are parts of the same machine; and I realise it’s time for me to speak out.

Right?  Honourable?  Liveable?

Perhaps not so much as you advertise, Lord Mayor.  I keep wondering what our guest will say about Australia when he returns to New York.

Yours truly,

Adair Jones


  1. I am with you on this one.

    I once forgot a new neighbour here worked for Brisbane Transport. When his wife remarked not having a working car mustn’t be so bad for me as I can just bus it, I snapped “Public transport doesn’t work here. There’s no infrastructure.” After which her hubby glared and sulked. (One of my many glorious foot-in-mouth moments– I think I should just leave my foot in there.)

    When I first moved up from Sydney, I walked out of an evening class to find my car was gone. I panicked, thinking it had been stolen– the area was kind of industrial with only a McDonalds and a service station. I had double-checked the parking sign above where I’d parked out of obsessive habit, plus I had been parking there all week. What I didn’t check was the flashing baricades several blocks away that I assumed pertained to roadwork in that area. Apparently they signalled that a game was on at Suncorp Stadium, and there was no parking anywhere. They didn’t tell me this in my course. Nor were there any signs where I parked. My car had been towed– I had to find out where, get a taxi there, and pay over $200. If I recall rightly, I got another ticket in the mail, on top of the impound fine. The impound fine was non-refundable, but I appealed the ticket on the grounds that there was no sign, and was told by one and all that ‘everyone knows you don’t park there when there’s a game on’.

    I have been pulled over going the same speed or slower than everyone else on the road (ironically when I was lost on my way home from buying two chairs on ebay for $5 I was going to do up). I was trying to pull my weight in the household as my bf was the only one working at the time. I was pleased w/ the project to decorate the house on the cheap…. I too got completely belittled and sneered at by the apprehending officer. I was too upset to keep driving. I rang Dan sobbing to tell him I’d got a $150 speeding fine picking up $5 worth of old chairs. Now I can laugh…

    There have been many other instances. For one, when Dan and I worked around New Farm and the Valley, we used to carpool. Every day we’d witness a shocking feat of brazen driving, such as a three point turn on a busy main road. There was never a cop in sight. But Dan once got a ticket for jaywalking across an empty street after I dropped him off. In the Valley Mall! There was probably a drug deal going on three feet away.

    Oh, sigh… This is the only city I’ve ever lived in where major road signs are obstructed by trees, more often than not.

    The buses arrive if/when they feel like it. Taxi drivers seldom know where they are going. Thank heavens for ferries, which I ♥

    Brisbane has been exceedingly good to me in many ways. There is a lot of charm to this city, and it is special to me. But the transportation situation here is an area of weakness that I feel needs to be improved, for visitors and locals alike. It influences how we use our city.

    I should point out I’ve lived in London, New York, Melbourne, Sydney, and have travelled all over Europe and the U.S. Never once have I been insulted, unduly perplexed, or reduced to tears. Until now.


    • I bet there are a million stories like the ones you’ve told. And a few novels waiting to be written…

      • heh, my comment is already almost a novel in itself. You opened a can of worms, Ms Jones.

  2. Well done Adair. I recently received two separate fines for parking outside of my apartment. I had a resident’s parking permit in clear view at the time. I appealed the fines several times, finally getting a reprieve from the commissioner as I had proof I was in my car elsewhere at the times the fines were issued. It was clearly a predatory fundraising activity on behalf of council and it would have raised them easy money had I not made the time to challenge them. You go girl.

    • That doesn’t surprise me, Karen. Traffic laws and their enforcers are powerful, but they are minor deities in the Brisbane cosmos. Sport, however, reigns supreme. If you don’t have the proper my-eyes-have-seen-the-glory-of-the-coming-of-the-Lord attitude, they’ll get you.

      Once I wanted to go to Milton from Kelvin Grove. The highway was crowded, so I went the Roma Street way. All roads were blocked and there were no detours set up and traffic cops were directing everyone over the William Jolly Bridge. For a second I imagined a huge disaster of 9-11 proportions. When I turned on the radio, I discovered it was ‘game’ night. I circled round QPAC and crossed the Elizabeth Street Bridge, but I didn’t realise I was turning ino a bus lane (because you must know without fail all the laws and lanes and tricks of Brisbane without the benefit of signs). Once you’re in the bus lane on the bridge, of course, you can’t get out. I saw in the rear view mirror a chubby traffic cop running after me on foot, which was a pretty funny sight. When I recognised, he wanted to pull me over and give me a ticket, I was already too far for him to pursue. He was bent over, huffing, trying to catch his breath–also, pretty funny. And I never did get a ticket in the mail!

  3. My experience with the Brisbane City Council disputes resolution process: a complete waste of time and resources as you will not get to communicate person to person to put your case, no one will return your phone-calls, you will not be given the benefit of the doubt as Council-Officers-Never-Make-Mistakes-but-it-is-OK-fo-them-to-have-Conveniently-Selective-Amnesia. All you will receive are pompous letters stating the Officer correctly recorded the make, model, registration of your vehicle bla bla and therefore there is “sufficient evidence” to fine you, but please note your right to waste more of your valuable time and money being dragged through Court…etc…etc…

    It strikes me there is far to much legal opining going on in Brisbane Bureaucracy, setting up an adversarial them-and-us situation whereby the interpretation of “fair and reasonable” is clearly a movable feast.

    “Our” Brisbane indeed!

    Can we please get some humanism back into the system?

  4. Wow. First of all….the writing of the event is impeccable and possibly not what you want me to say. Second of all…BULLY FOR YOU. Well said.

    Third of all. I bet you have pricked the hairs on the neck of many who have been so offended.

    And fourth of all….re subsequent conversation…do you have any idea what a proponent you are for justice in this world or in the world down under? I am so proud to think that you don’t just let it pass. Jeff is more pragmatic and more “manly” in his reactions, but then I bet the motorcycle cop was a man as well, right? All the more reason I MUST send you a few books for your birthday. You’ll understand once you read them.

    And fifth of all and most, most important. You are a mother and just know what to do. When it’s right it’s right. And my grandson is a fortunate being to have a mom like you. You are his hero and years from now he will acknowledge that.

    And Anna is going to be the smartest of all…because she has the collective experience of Nicole and Aidan, plus her own….

    I so love love love my Austrailan family and miss you all so so much. Grandma

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