Debbie Grady has heard it all. As a California Highway Patrol officer for 16 years on some of Southern California's busiest highways, she is alternately amused and appalled by the excuses she hears when she pulls over 90-mph speedsters.
"It's the men, surprisingly, who tell me they were hurrying because they have to go to the bathroom," Grady says. "I tell them I write fast."
Grady, 44, has relied on her quick wits to navigate the harrowing minutes after fatal accidents, monotonous rounds of rush-hour patrol and the gruesome but fascinating task of reconstructing an incident based on skid marks, blood, metal and glass.
Statewide, records show, a fourth of fatal and injury accidents in 1997 were caused by excessive speed. Someone dies every 2 hours and 23 minutes in a traffic collision on California's roadways, according to state records. Grady says one or more of the same elements combine again and again to cause those disasters: speed, youth, alcohol and inattention.
Earlier this month, Grady saw evidence of that as she peered into the wreckage of a Mercedes-Benz as its 21-year-old driver lay dead on the shoulder. He had been thrown from his car when he lost control on rain-slick Santiago Canyon Road where it curves toward the Cleveland National Forest. Authorities believe he may have been reaching for a car phone at the time.
"Southern Californians just don't like anything that slows them down," Grady says. "They don't slow down for fog. They don't slow down for rain. They don't slow down for anything."
She sighs. "What a stupid waste of humanity. It's not like it's that difficult to control your speed. Just take your foot off the pedal."
She has patrolled the Riverside and Santa Ana freeways, and for eight years her beat was the Orange Freeway.
Her latest assignment is a breeze compared to that: She now patrols the new San Joaquin Transportation Corridor segment that ribbons between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.
A rash of accidents on the toll road raised questions about its safety, but Grady doesn't buy that.
"This is a beautiful, perfectly safe road. It's not the road doing it, believe me, it's the people driving the cars," she says. She points out the spot on the tollway where a 16-year-old recently careened across the median and slammed into an oncoming car, killing himself and two other people. Investigators found that the young driver was going more than 90 mph.
The job can take its toll.
Grady's toughest day came in July 1996. She was one of the first to arrive as fellow CHP Officer Don Burt lay bleeding to death. He had been gunned down in a Fullerton parking lot by a man he stopped for a traffic violation.
Grady phoned her mother that day, concerned that she would hear news reports and fear it was her daughter who was killed.
"Most times I don't cry, but the night of the shooting I called my mother just bawling my head off, 'Mom, it's not me, it's not me.' "
Grady, who has advanced training in several areas, says: "I like working the wrecks. I like putting the pieces together."
Her meticulous work has put two hit-and-run drivers in prison, and she is proud of that. And after nearly two decades on the road, she has not lost either her enthusiasm for her calling or her faith in humanity.
"My favorite thing is when somebody is speeding aggressively, and everybody just falls back behind you because they're so happy you got the guy. It's like Moses parting the Red Sea."
Make that Moses in a Ford Crown Victoria with lights on top.
On a drizzly afternoon, Grady powers her way smoothly along the toll road, her "pinch book" of tickets at her side. She points out the impatient teenager who can't wait for her to disappear, the timid motorist who won't pass the police car, the driver who starts to edge onto a shoulder to whiz past stopped traffic, then darts back when he spots her.
There is one common denominator. None of the drivers looks at her; they keep their eyes glued to the road.
"It's like, if they don't look at me, I don't exist. They don't realize that by the time they see me, I've already made up my mind whether or not I'm going to stop them."
Grady got a speeding ticket herself once. It was back in high school, and it still annoys her. She unconsciously switches from the role of enforcer to mildly outraged citizen as she mentions it.
In making the transition over the years from youthful speeder to law enforcer, Grady has learned all the tricks that motorists play.
Men, especially, start out "sugary sweet," she says, then begin cursing, yelling and throwing things.
Women drivers have their own tactics. In darkness or rainy weather, when Grady's gender is masked by unisex gear, some will hitch up their skirts as she approaches the car. Her response, she says, is to lean down into the window and say, " 'You know, that really doesn't impress me; you might as well put it back.' They just die."
Sometimes Grady gets repeat customers. A day after she ticketed a motorist who used "I've got to go to the bathroom" as his excuse, she stopped him in the same spot, speeding again.
"So, sir, how is your bladder today?" she deadpanned.