DON’T CUSS THE TRAFFIC COP
Patrol Sergeant Walter Porter can’t understand why a man becomes a heel when he climbs behind the wheel. Though he gets sworn at, bullied and threatened, he manages to keep his temper and sanity and almost kills himself with work to try to stop you from killing yourself
WALTER ALVIN PORTER, a big wise patrol sergeant whose curly hair has already started to grey, has one of the toughest and most thankless
jobs in Canada. He's a Toronto traffic cop. It's a job that makes him indirectly responsible for the safety of up to a quarter million impatient, careless, defiant motorists on the narrow streets of one of the world's nastiest traffic cities. It requires him to be bounced and jiggled for eight hours a day in the snow, sleet, rain and heat until his kidneys feel like mush and his sinuses yell for mercy. It requires him to be in court on his day off when he'd rather be tending his roses. It twists his life around so that his wife seldom knows when to expect him for supper or if she will see him in the evening. But, worse than all this, it's a job that makes him a symbol of hate and fear in the eyes of the very motorists he risks his life to protect-drivers who cajole, threaten, curse and whine to escape a ticket and have even been known to tear it up and pitch it in his face. For all this Patrol Sgt. Porter receives a salary of thirty-six hundred dollars a year--much less than a first-class plumber. Seven percent of it goes into a pension fund that will pay him twelve hundred a year on retirement after thirty years' service. To most drivers the traffic cop appears the epitome of meanness in uniform, but Porter at thirty-five is a good-natured man who somehow, in spite of abuse from motorists, has managed to keep his temper even and his ideals straight. He has become neither cynical, bitter nor mean, and he never forgets that his real job is to protect rather than to punish. But, after sixteen years of police work, Porter still can't figure out why getting behind the wheel of a car should make a heel out of an otherwise honest, wellmannered, decent citizen. "They'll break every law in the book," he says, shaking his head sorrowfully, "and take chances my seven-year-old Bruce wouldn't take. And then, like kids, as soon as they see a policeman on the corner they become little angels-slow right down to a walk, signal all over the place, wave other drivers ahead and become so damned polite they tie up the intersection."
Looks Like a Losing Battle
Since all Toronto is his beat (Porter supervises about twenty-five other patrolmen on his shift) he has a good chance to observe the folly of motorists. According to a recent international survey Toronto has more cars per thousand population than either Chicago or New York City-more, in fact, than any other city in the world except Detroit, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Milwaukee. There are more than a quarter million motor vehicles registered in the city and adjoining York Township. Add to this the tourists and commuters, and the traffic division on an average busy day has more than two hundred thousand vehicles to handle. Against these Porter and the hundred and thirty-five other motorcycle men are fighting a losing battle. Although they hand out an average of four hundred and fifty tickets and summonses a day and lecture twice that many drivers, the accident rate continues to rise. Last year the city had 7,849 accidents involving motor ists, with 3,308 injured and 58 killed. This year's accident rate is already 1,323 ahead of last year. At that, according to the annual inventory of the National Safety League of Chicago, Toronto has a better record than all except two North American cities in its population group. When Porter eases his long (six foot two, 150-pound) frame off his bike and walks back to have a few words with some dare-devil motorist, he's ready for anything and frequently gets it. Roughly, he classifies recalcitrant drivers as crawlers, cursers and big shots. The crawler has a hard-luck story ready. "You-should hear them," Porter says, with a grimace. "The wife is in hospital, the kids have no shoes, the mortgage is due and if he gets a ticket he'll lose his job." The curser believes that the best defense is attack. He starts shouting at the patrolman as soon as he's in range, and in a loud domineering voice recites all the unsavory publicity about the police he can think of. The big shot treats a
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cop like a hireling (“I’m fired two or three times a day”), or he makes sure that Porter knows his place of business and suggests about as subtly as a kick in the pants that he drop in and look around sometime. “I’ve been offered everything including a kitchen stove,” says Porter.
In handling these types Porter is a composite of Mr. Anthony, Dorothy Dix and a school principal giving a kid the strap. Unlike traffic cops in ’cartoons and movies he doesn’t pull up beside a car and shout “Now where do you think you're going?” Rather, to relieve nervous tension on both sides, he parks his hike a few yards in front of the car and slowly walks back.
His first words to the driver are: “Is this your car?” Then he asks for the driver’s license and checks it with the number plate. By this time he has lost some indignation over the offense and is able to give the offender a talk on safety without losing his temper.
Addressing the driver by name, he explains the danger in careless driving and gives him a ticket or not, depending on the circumstances and the driver’s behavior.
Porter takes a dim view of every traffic violation, regardless of how trivial it may seem, because he knows what they can cause. For ten years he rode the accident car the big yellow vehicle with the siren and spotlight that goes to every accident. He figures he’s been to more than seven thousand accidents and picked up more than fourteen thousand injured or dead bodies from the streets. Now, as he watches motorists ignore stop signs, disobey traffic signals and perform dozens of other illegal and careless stunts, he can’t help thinking of the things he’s seen.
A Lecture for a Mayor
When he sees a motorist make a left-hand turn from a right-hand lane he remembers the nineteen-year-old boy who was put in a wheelchair for life when another car did just that. Sometimes drivers snarl at him when he makes them fix some small defect in a car, but Porter can’t erase from his mind the picture of the little girl whose brains were splattered over a lamppost when she was hit by the improperly secured sidegate of a turning truck. In his tunic pocket he carries a three-inch chunk of a jagged radiator cap. Often he shows it to motorists with the warning: “This was removed from the heart of a dead pedestrian hit by a motorist driving the way you are now.”
Porter maintains that the worst fault of motorists is just plain bad manners. Recently at a busy intersection he saw a car cut from the centre lane and make a right-hand turn, leaving a line of honking, swearing motorists in its wake. Porter gave chase, waved the car over to the curb, and, after the usual preliminaries, demanded if that was the way the man at the wheel always drove.
The driver informed him defiantly that he’d been driving that way for twenty years without an accident.
Porter asked quietly: “Did you ever have to jam on your brakes to avoid hitting a car that had shot out from the curb or made an unexpected turn?”
“Well, it’s just the alertness of other drivers that’s been protecting you all these years.”
The driver had never thought of it that way. He lost some of his belligerency and began asking Porter questions on safety. Finally he introduced
himself as the mayor of a large northern city and invited Porter to give a safety talk to his traffic squad.
Porter points out that often a little explanation that makes the driver see reason is more effective than a ticket that makes him see red. “We’ve got to get the public on our side or we’re beat,” he says.
Don’t Forget the Safety Margin
Inattention is the second biggest cause of accidents. Porter maintains. Drivers gape at store windows, yarn with other passengers, light cigars, hug their girls and do everything except watch their driving. Porter remembers one young woman who reached down involuntarily to locate a loose heater wire and in doing so put a little extra pressure on the right side of the steering wheel. In a split second of inattention the car ran up on the sidewalk and killed two pedestrians.
Porter feels that most of us don’t give outselves enough safety margin. At forty miles an hour with perfect brakes and tires on a dry street you may come to a full stop in one hundred and fifteen feet. “You should never forget that simple fact for a second when you’re driving,” he advises.
He also points out that most drivers don’t realize that driving with any defect that interferes with safe driving is an offense; this includes dirty windshield, brakes that need pumping, tilted headlights, loose steering gear, wornout emergency brake, twisted rearvision mirror, improperly adjusted front seat. One accident in which a truck driver broke a boy’s back was blamed on a faulty rear-vision mirror. The driver lost his license and his company paid twenty-two thousand dollars’ damages.
Porter himself never presses the starter of any car without first giving it a thorough “curb test.” “I just sit there and check everything that’s checkable,” he says. “That’s what pilots do before they take an aircraft into the air and you’re a lot safer up there than in busy traffic with a car that isn’t perfect in every respect.”
In spite of his continual despair at the stupidity of drivers, Porter could never be called a tough cop. He has a genuine liking for people and he understands that often there are extenuating circumstances. Not long ago he saw a car whiz through a red light without pausing. When Porter stopped him the driver looked at him wearily and said with perfect honesty: “I
never even noticed the light.” He explained he’d been working double shifts for two weeks to raise money for his wife’s hospital bill. Porter, whose one vanity is his faith that he can tell a real story from a phony, suggested the driver ride the streetcars until the pressure was off and sent him on his way without a ticket.
Another time he scolded a young matron for double-parking and leaving her motor running. Blushing with confusion she thanked him and drove off with gears grinding. Five minutes later he was dumbfounded to see the same car shoot past him while he was
waiting for a red light. When he stopped the woman again she asked in an injured tone: “Well, what have I
done now?” He told her.
She burst into tears. “I’ve never had a ticket since I started driving, but you just upset me so that I didn’t know what I was doing.” Porter, who is as inadequate in the presence of female tears as any husband, advised her to pull over to the curb and sit there until she felt better.
More times than he can remember Porter has helped drivers in distress. Once an American honeymooner had a collision with a streetcar, smashed his car and sent his bride to hospital. Porter had the car hauled off to a garage, supervised its repair and found the groom a place to live. Often he has loaned money and car tickets to motorists stranded at night.
“I’ve never even lost a dime that way,” he says. “They always either send it to me or come around to the garage with it.”
Porter’s home life is badly disrupted by what his blond wife Doris calls his “hateful hours.” He works in shifts and is home evenings only one week
in four. The Porters haven’t seen a movie in six months.
His eight-hour day means eight hours on the street. Porter always arrives at the police garage an hour early to line up the day’s work for his men, assign them to their districts (no patrolman gets the same district two days in succession) and motorcycles, give them lists of license numbers to watch for, to inspect their buttons, haircuts and general appearance. He’s not permitted to ride a bike home, can’t afford a car and lives an hour’s streetcar ride from the garage, so on days that
he’s on the eight-to-four shift he must crawl out of bed at five.
Also, the time he must spend in court giving evidence pretty well makes a travesty of the five-day week. If a driver elects to appear in court instead of pleading guilty and paying the fine Porter is supposed to be there to give evidence on his day off. He’s then allowed two hours off on another day, but getting to court, giving evidence
and getting home often take all day. If the arresting officer is not in court the case is dismissed for lack of evidence. “And you’d better have a good excuse for not being there or the inspector will take you over the jumps,” says Porter.
Giving evidence is a headache to many traffic officers. A clever counsel can bully, bluff and cajole the unwary cop into legal pitfalls. Not Porter, who is a walking encyclopedia of traffic law. They still tell about a case involving a streetcar and a truck; Porter had his facts cold -speed of vehicles, point of impact and the rest. When the lawyer attempted to pin him down on the distance a streetcar would travel in a given time Porter tied the lawyer up with questions of his own — the type of car referred to, the number of passengers, condition of rails. Before he was finished the lawyer was confused and out of temper. “It was better than a circus,” one of Porter’s fellow officers declared.
During the eight hours he’s on the street Porter covers the whole city, keeping track of his men by two-way radio. He directs traffic where the congestion is heaviest one of the traffic officer’s nastiest chores. After two hours your back feels as though it has been hit with a hammer, your calves are in knots and your stomach is sick from exhaust fumes. When it’s slushy —as it often is in Toronto—every car splatters you with muck and the drivers can’t see too well. At least one officer has been killed working an intersection. Drivers often become so incensed at having to stop or being denied a left turn that they will roll down their windows and curse in the policeman’s face.
There are other dangers. Porter’s bike will do one hundred and twenty miles an hour and he’s had it up to
ninety-five chasing a speedster. But Porter’s only really bad spill came when he was traveling a mere ten miles an hour. An aged motorist who didn’t see him came up behind and ran into him. It sent him thirty feet through the air and put him in hospital with bruises and a broken ankle that still bothers him.
Why does a man become a policeman? With Porter it was an interest in the law and in people. He was born in Toronto’s east end, attended Leslie Public School and Eastern Commerce, where he took extra courses in public speaking. After school came the depression and the end of his hopes of studying law. He worked at several jobs until his interest in law-breakers led him to accept a position as guard in Toronto’s tough old Don jail. Here he got on so well with the inmates (he used to play checkers through the bars with gangster Mickey McDonald) that they protested to the warden when he left to join the police force.
After only one month on the beat he was promoted to plainclothesman. He didn’t like it and after a year got a transfer to the motorcycle squad of No. 8 Division. Here for a year he directed traffic, escorted bank clerks, helped kids across the streets and did the other chores required of a divisional patrolman. Then he was transferred to the traffic division and rode the accident car for a decade. Last December he was promoted to patrol sergeant and found himself back on a motorcycle.
The Porters live in their own twostory brick house in Leaside, a municipality adjoining Toronto on the northeast. They have two children, Bruce, seven, and Gail, three and a half. Bruce, who is tall and curly-headed and talkative like his dad, wants to be a cop when he grows up, but his dad says “Not if I can help it.”
Porter spends most of his spare time and his three-week holiday puttering around the backyard, painting, terracing, trying to keep water out of his basement and growing roses. When he can make it he goes fishing. When he can’t be outside Porter listens to brass-band music on the radio and studies law books, safety statistics and traffic cases from all over the country. He enjoys playing with the neighborhood kids and he has just about as much trouble as any other father persuading his own to go to bed.
In spite of all the drawbacks of police work and pressure from his family and friends Porter has turned down offers of twice his present salary from insurance companies and law firms impressed with his investigating ability. “Police work gets in your blood,” he explains.
The other day he stopped an old beat-up jalopy to check on faulty steering. The elderly driver was a clergyman and after listening to Porter’s safety lecture he declared: “Son, you’ve given me an idea for my .Sunday radio sermon.” Porter heard the talk: “As the policeman saves the body, the clergyman saves the soul.”
“I guess it’s something like that,” he says.