It was a routine traffic stop. At least by Australian standards. Traffic was funneled to a single lane and police officers conducted random breathalyzer tests. I knew these happened and I had no reason to worry, but still I felt uneasy. The American in me couldn’t shake the thought, “they can’t just do this without probable cause, right?” But it turns out they could, and often do, and a majority of Australians don’t think twice about it.
Another American, Macy, was in the car with me at the time and shared that she had a similar reaction. As we talked through the experience we recognized that if the random stops nab intoxicated drivers before they get in accident or worse, then it’s arguably worth the inconvenience. I later learned this is probably where most Australians land.
A week later I was sitting in a room with another American volunteer, Joe, and our Australian colleague, Pete, as they recounted a similar experience. A few weeks before they had gone through a similar checkpoint in a different part of Australia. Pete mentioned that he noticed Joe get a bit squirmy in his seat as they approached the checkpoint. Though he was merely a passenger, Joe had the feeling that they can’t just do this. He had been brought up not to fear the police, but with the idea that police were always going to look for something wrong, a way to get you… Following the old saying, if you are trained to be a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
While Joe, Macy and I were able to see the benefit of the preventative measure, something didn’t quite sit right with us. Alongside Pete’s perspective our reaction seemed so American, and I have been trying to figure out why. In part I wonder if a greater sense of distrust of the police has figured into American consciousness, especially when so many documented cases of police stops have lethal outcomes for people of color in particular in the United States. Perhaps it also has to do with personal rights, which are perceived differently all around the world.
We are often asked what is different between the US and Australia, and come up with generally minor examples here and there. But in a routine traffic stop the difference hit especially hard.