highway fun, highway blues in pennsylvania

We always spend the last night of our US Thanksgiving trip at the home of my brother and sister-in-law in central New Jersey (near the city of New Brunswick, for those who know the state). We stay up late talking and drinking wine with some combination of friends - who happen to be siblings, nieces, nephews, and their respective partners - then wake up early to hit the road. The drive takes us through a part of New Jersey to Pennsylvania, through the Delaware Water Gap, up through the Poconos to New York State, then straight up through New York, emerging at the New York State Thruway at Syracuse.

We usually stop for a late breakfast near Scranton. (You may know the name from "The Office". It is indeed a real town in Pennsylvania.) But on this trip, we got horribly lost after leaving my brother's home - trying to correct a simple wrong turn just got worse and worse, and we wasted nearly two hours of drive-time. Because of this, we didn't want to take an hour for breakfast at a crowded Denny's, but we don't eat fast food. We especially gave up eating fast food on car trips many years ago. Driving around trying to find a supermarket would be more time-consuming than Denny's. On the way down, we stop at Whole Foods in Oakville for their amazing salad bar, but this is not an affluent area where we're likely to find one of those. What to do?

Through this dilemma, we discovered Sheetz, my new favourite pit-stop. Sheetz is a chain of gas stations and convenience stores in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and northeastern Ohio. What makes it special is fresh, fast food made to order. You order by touch-screen from a menu that includes the usual less-than-healthy but yummy items like burgers, breakfast sandwiches, shakes and plenty of fried things, but also salads and wraps with a good variety of ingredients. Any fast-er food franchise where you control exactly what you order - such as Subway or Blimpie - is already a much healthier option.

I see how the touch-screen order system is designed to encourage you to order more food, as you see all kinds of options that you might not otherwise think of, from double meat or dressing to fried things on the side. But the choices are extensive, there are many healthy options, and it's very inexpensive. I was way impressed. Here's Sheetz in their own words, and here's a map of where you find them.

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Despite Sheetz, Allan and I will be in no hurry to drive through Pennsylvania again. Driving through the Poconos area on a winding two-lane highway, we were cruising along in the right lane, doing no more than five miles an hour over the speed limit. After discovering what two speeding tickets will do to your car insurance, we are determined to never get another speeding ticket again. It takes us a bit longer to get places, but we don't care: we don't speed. Thus imagine our surprise when a state trooper with lights flashing pulled up behind us.

The officer informed us that there is a law in Pennsylvania that requires motorists passing emergency vehicles to move to the left lane if possible. This trooper was parked in a turn-off with his lights flashing - although no emergency was taking place - waiting for cars to not pull over, so he could ticket them. And, we suspect, waiting specifically for cars with out of state plates.

We were doing 70 mph (the limit was 65) in the right lane, and when we saw him, slowed a bit. To our left, cars were zipping by at top speeds, on a road filled with curves. It was far safer to simply drive slowly without changing lanes - especially because we could see there was no actual emergency, merely a police car with lights flashing, no other vehicle present - than it would be to move into the faster lane. Of course we didn't argue with the state trooper, as that can only result in a greater fine.

When he went back to his car to check license and registration, I assumed we would be issued a warning. I was wrong. He ticketed us. He said the fine can range from $25 to $250, and he generously gave us the minimum. As we drove away, I read the citation. Twenty-five dollars? Not quite. The citation includes:
- Fine: $25
- EMS: $10
- Mcare: $30.00
- Costs: $34.50
- JCP/ATJ: $10

I had to look up that last one: it's the cost of checking your information via computer from the cop car. Grand total for the ticket: $109.50.

In the fine print, it says that in order to contest the ticket without cost, you must appear in person. If you plead not-guilty by mail, you are required to send the full amount of the ticket plus a $7.00 processing fee, to be held as "collateral". If you are found not guilty, the money will be returned.

I don't know if being found non-guilty comes before or after pigs fly and hell freezes over, but obviously out-of-state drivers are unlikely to be aware of this lane-changing law, and are probably unable to contest a ticket in person. So the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has state troopers faking an emergency, likely waiting for out-of-state plates to pass, in order to fund the state's EMS, Medicare and mobile toys. Do I even have to tell you we're not paying this?

As an additional irritant, the trooper asked us where we were coming from, why we were traveling, and where we were going. Why is a state trooper asking us those questions? He's not working for federal border control or customs. If we have a valid license and registration, and are using the highway in a lawful manner, what the hell business is it of Pennsylvania's where we are going and why? Yet if we had politely answered, "We are not required to tell you that," things would have gotten much worse. That is an abuse of power.

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