12 December 2011

Minority Report at US Border

A very good friend of mine sent me this description of a journey he took from Vancouver to Seattle. He had to clear US Customs and Immigration at the train station in Vancouver, before boarding the train.

At the Amtrak train station in Vancouver, I was passing through the US border inspection with my bike.

At the lineup control:

Guard 1: "Where's your helmet?"
Me: "It's at home."
G1: "Why don't you have it?"
Me: "I won't be needing it on this trip."
G1: "Why not?"
Me: "Because it won't be necessary for my type of biking."
G1: "So, you plan on breaking the law?"
Me: "Ummm... what law?"

... then I'm waved over the inspection desk ...

Guard 2: "Where are you going?"
Me: "Seattle"
G2: "Where's your helmet?"
Me: "I didn't bring it."
G2: "You ride without one?"
Me: "Depends on the situation."
G2: "Are you aware that it's the law in the state of Washington?" (Ed: It's not, he's wrong)
Me: "I wasn't aware of this."
G2: "So, you were planning to break the law on purpose?"
Me: "I had no intention of doing so."
G2: "Do you think I should let you in to my country knowing that you intend on breaking the law?"
Me: "Ummm... I assume 'no?'"
G2: "Don't assume; the answer is NO. How do I know you aren't going to commit other crimes?"
Me: "I understand. So what is your decision?"
G2: "I'm going to let you thorough on the condition that upon arrival you purchase a helmet. If you are cited for biking without a helmet, I will know because I'm going to check your file later today. If that's the case, you will have trouble entering the US again."
Me: "Thank you, I'll buy a helmet."

So, all in all, I boarded the train scared, rattled and angry. I didn't know how to handle myself and I never expected anything like it. I wondered if he was bluffing, but I wasn't going to risk anything seeing as I need to re-enter the US on other business throughout the year. Upon arrival, I went to a LBS to consider a helmet and the store guy said at least half of his friends have been cited for not having a helmet--but he doesn't use one if he can help it. There are plenty of painted bike lanes everywhere. I bought a helmet. But I felt more than ever that my side of the planet needs serious help.

So. It begs the question. Do US Border Police harass every motorist entering the country?

"I can see on your speedometer than your car is capable of exceeding US and State speed limits."
"Um. Yes."
"Are you aware that exceeding the speed limit is the law?"
"Do you think I should let you in to my country knowing that you are driving a car capable of breaking the speed limit?"

Do they check their files later in the day? Nah.

This is police stupidity. Ignoring the Bull so blatantly that it hurts. On their website the tagline is "Securing America's Borders..." Yeah, right.

Together with Chicago's ridiculous new pedestrian flags this week, I too, wonder how liveable cities free of automotive tyranny will ever gain purchase in some regions. Sigh.


Downfader said...

I have heard many similar complaints about border patrol and in airports too. The US are particularly hostile, and many have said this is to provoke a reaction.

I have no idea why. Perhaps its a power thing, or a boredom thing, but its not a great public service thing.

James Schwartz said...

I wouldn't have bought the helmet...

Alexwarrior said...

Hehe I got questioned at the same border post, except I took my bike helmet on the train, but no bike. They were nice about it though. I was renting a bike in Seattle when I got there. For what it's worth, there is a helmet law in Seattle.

Alexwarrior said...

Note please don't take my comment as promoting the extra border inspection questioning you received, your point about why you received the extra scrutiny vs a car that can exceed the speed limit, as well as do many other things is well made!

Dave said...

This summer I toured up VI and down the Sun Coast and back to Seattle. I had a similar treatment at the same crossing that ended my trip on a sour note. FWIW I got a little guff at Sidney on my way in about stealing jobs up there. I don't think he was kidding.

This part speaks volumes: ""Do you think I should let you in to my country...?" It's not yours, Assbite! Or maybe you should have said, "It's not really yours, its just on loan from the Queen."

Well, don't let it get to you, those guys are the minority. We're not all that way.

BG said...

The really bizarre thing here is that B.C. actually does have a mandatory helmet law, but Washington State doesn't. Maybe they forgot which side of the border they were on? FWIW, the Canadian border guards have given me a hard time about all kinds of stuff -- it goes both ways, for sure.

As for the crosswalk flags in Chicago: they tried those at a notoriously bad crosswalk in Charlottesville, VA, when I was living there about 7 years ago. All the flags were stolen within a month.

SteveL said...

If it makes you feel better I did get stopped doing 72-ish mph between Seattle and Tacoma. I didn't try the "look, this car can do 120 mph, I am not even trying" gambit, but was apologetic. The policeman did say that'd he'd radio ahead about a white car with a bike on the roof -and for the next 300 miles south I'd better be below the limit. Which is a good deterrent.

Regarding the border post, say you plan to cycle in Portland, Oregon.

Edward said...

Please oh please let this be a joke. It's starting to get depressing.

Ryan said...

The helmet gestapo are going mad in this part of the world.

Nova Scotia is making everyone wear a helmet while skiing now, Ottawa is forcing kids and "weak" skaters to wear a helmet while skating on public (indoor) rinks, numerous bike helmet laws run a muck and now this!

I swear I'm going to need a helmet for how many times I slap my hand to my head in disbelief.

Anonymous said...

The truly stupid part is that a law mandating wearing a helmet exists in the USA.

Paul Martin said...

...and this is why I shall never visit the USA again. The last time was so humiliating for both me and my wife. Never again.

Those that trade freedom for safety deserve neither.

Anonymous said...

A couple went on vacation to a resort up north. The husband liked to fish, and the wife liked to read. One morning the husband came back from fishing after getting up real early that morning and took a nap. While he slept, the wife decided to take the boat out. She was not familiar with the lake, so she rowed out and anchored the boat, and started reading her book.

Along comes the Game Warden in his boat, pulls up alongside the woman's boat and asks her what she's doing? She says, "Reading my book." The Game Warden tells her she is in a restricted fishing area and she explains that she's not fishing. To which he replied, "But you have all this equipment. I will have to take you in and write you up!" Angry that the warden was being so unreasonable, the lady told the warden, "If you do that, I will charge you with rape." The warden, shocked by her statement, replied, "But I didn't even touch you." To which the lady replied, "Yes; but you have all the equipment!"

llewellyn said...

Some years ago I travelled by car from the US into Canada to ski.The upcoming Presidents Day long weekend meant that I could only get 3 days skiing, so I thought ,why not drive to Montana and ski at Big Mountain.Passed thru from Canada ok but went through the 3rd degree by the US customs with body search car search, I felt bad as I left for the 3 British snowboarders who were having their car virtually dismantled.

Álvaro said...

cycling in SFO without a helmet, a car pulled a bit too close by my side and the lady driving the vehicle started shouting at me that I would end up in a wheelchair or dead.

That was one of the most dangerous situations I've ever been while cycling, and I've cycled some and then more. Pathetic.

Overtaker said...

When I lived in Seattle in 2002-3 there wasn't a helmet law. I did have a helmet but hardly ever wore it. However, when I crossed over the Puget Sound to visit friends the local ordinances required helmets - made clear in signs erected on the side of the road as you entered the district.

The devolution of law down to such a parochial level is dangerous.

Anonymous said...

I'm a US citizen, but I've got work visas in two other countries. You'd be amazed the grief I get when I return to the US... CBP is not exactly the "Welcome to the US" that I wish we'd offer visitors.

Vocus Dwabe said...

If true, this is extremely worrying in what it says about the US Border Police, because petty officials making the law up as they go along, with no right of appeal on the part of their victims, is behaviour very characteristic of police states.

Believe me: I know what I'm talking about because back in the 1970s I lived for four years in a full-on Soviet-Bloc totalitarian state where the law was essentially whatever anyone in uniform said it was, and arguing about it was liable to earn you a whack with a length of rubber hosepipe filled with lead shot, followed by a few days in jail, followed by a black mark on your dossier which would remain there for the rest of your life.

Here in the UK things aren't that bad yet: if a police officer demanded to know why you weren't wearing a helmet you would either tell him to mind his own business, or ask sweetly "Oh? and which law would that be then, officer?", followed by an offer to take his number and write to his Chief Constable or the Police Complaints Commission. But anecdotal evidence suggests that we may be moving in the US direction: while of course, if UK border officials refused you entry to the country on a whim it's difficult to know how exactly you would react if you didn't happen to be a British citizen with access to a solicitor.

In 1973 two Irish friends decided to go to Moscow by the overland route via Warsaw and Brest-Litovsk driving a Volvo. Despite having all the necessary visas and travel permits, they were detained for three days at Brest by Soviet customs officials who couldn't be persuaded that a Volvo wasn't an export version of the Soviet "Volga" car, and that they were therefore attempting to re-import the vehicle illegally to the USSR...

belles said...

I went straight to the text before seeing the headline and I thought you were referring to an incident that happened in Australia!! When it comes to helmet laws I thought we were the most Nanny of them all....not any more!!

jellyfishheart said...

Reason #453 Why I Am Happy To No Longer Be Living In The USA.

Chris Bruntlett said...

After receiving a $29 ticket in Vancouver last week, I had a pretty disappointing response to a letter-writing campaign regarding mandatory helmet laws. Of the 30 or so MLAs and city councillors I wrote on December 5th, only TWO have responded to me (Geoff Meggs and Christy Clark). Neither have any interest in repealing the laws, and I expect the same case with everyone else who hasn't responded. In the meantime, I stumbled upon this 2007 photo of (now Vancouver mayor) Gregor Robertson flaunting the city's helmet by-law: http://www.grist.org/biking/2011-09-19-critical-condition.

jn said...

Sounds like that incident was really over the top. Borderline illegal even.

I can relate. I was once flagged down by two bicycle police in Seattle for riding on the trail without a helmet.

I told them 'You mean I'm more of a threat to the public safety than all these dozens of drivers speeding past yakking on their cell phones (against the law) and breaking the speed limit to boot?'


Jason Tinkey said...

didn't you know that only terrorists don't wear bike helmets?

Anonymous said...

There is a helmet law in Seattle - that website is wrong. But that guy was definitely being a jerk.

dannyman said...

I rode Amtrak from Chicago to New York after Christmas 2009. At the Ohio-Pennsylvania border the train stopped at 6:30am and ICES came on board and demanded that everyone show their papers.

I was mad at this and as they approached my seat I got ready to give the guy a hard time, but they pulled the guy sitting next to me off the train for being Mexican.

I later learned that anything within 100 miles of a waterway that connects to the sea is a "Constitution Free Zone" and the government can demand your papers at any time without cause.

The America we live in today might as well have been an America that never threw off the yoke of tyranny.


Bigger Dummy said...

As a Canadian who travels to the USA frequently, getting put on the "denied entry" list for whatever minor or fictitious infraction like this BS helmet law would be disastrous. Getting ones name off the "denied entry" list.....fahgetaboutit....

shuichi said...

No Helmets in the US make people be happy?

I think border agents are strange.

Japanese don't wear helmets because many mama-charists slowly ride their bikes.

Anyhow, those prohibitions are not smart.

David J said...

Wow! That is heavy!
I wonder how many useless and unnecessarily punitive conversations those officers instigate every day?
Man that's a whole heap of bad Karma for them.
What a waste of time.

Joe Gallegos said...

While I think that US Customs agent guy was an a-hole, he was not entirely incorrect as your link pointed out. Indeed, King County does require helmets. That county includes Seattle. He was wrong about it being a state law, but not about it being a law in Seattle.

Having said that, I disagree with the whole mandatory helmet law thing. I live in Portland, Oregon and I really never wear a helmet except when I go to Vancouver, Washington where the law compels me to.

I've had many issues crossing that border. While driving into Canada in Blaine, Washington at the I-5/BC-99 crossing I was held and questioned for over an hour by the Canadian Border Services Agency because I had a cigarette lighter sitting on the passenger seat of my car. It was not that unlike the line of questioning mentioned in the post. I was questioned because my cigarette lighter could be used for illegal activities such as drugs. I think they suspected that the presence of a cigarette lighter with no cigarettes meant that I was smuggling drugs or something.

We've entered a brave new post-9/11 world of paranoia. EVERYONE is now a suspect.

Anonymous said...

I drive and take the train between the U.S. and Canada via New York occasionally. The border police are consistently abusive and obnoxious.

Andy Seger said...

Y'know I bought an obnoxiously American helmet just to irritate the border patrol. (http://www.nutcasehelmets.com/collections/street/gen2/stars-stripes)

Glenn said...

There's no state law in Washington, or national law in the U.S. on bike helmets. In my county (Jefferson) bike helmets are not required. In the nearby city of Port Townsend they were for a while, but that law has been repealed.

The border agent was being a jerk. The last time I crossed from Victoria to Port Angeles on the ferry the border guard in P.A. got upset because I put my hands in my pockets "where she couldn't see them". As though any sane person would attack an officer in the presence of several other officers and a large crowd of people. Against an insane person of course, there is no defense at all. Clearly our U.S. federal law enforcement types are getting out of hand. Between the Patriot Act, the recent Senate law declaring the "homeland" (where are we, the 3rd reich?) part of the battle field and U.S. citizens eligible for indefinite detainment or execution without charge, we are now a de facto police state. I'd like the U.N. to intervene.

S. Morris Rose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Vance said...

Chicago is just following Salt Lake City's "lead" with the pedestrian crossing flags.

Ugh, I don't like that. That's like waving at car drivers and saying, "Hey, mister, can you please stop so I can cross? Oh, you don't want to. That's okay, keep driving, I'll wait till there's a gap".

No, people should be able to safely cross without the aid of orange plastic, crossing guards, or other unnecessary accoutrements.

Charlie said...

A- The US Border patrol can suck it. They're asshats who live to torment. I am in no way on the side of the guy who harrassed this person coming into our country.
B-So I live here in Seattle, ride my bike all the time and have to wonder, as I often do, at the huge number of people who are so anti-helmet. Not anti-helmet laws, but anti-helmets.
What gives people? Do you honestly think that if you're riding on a bike trail or in a bike lane you don't need a helmet? If you choose not to wear one, that's your business and I don't think that there should be a law to wear them, but I just don't get the thinking that there is no need to wear a helmet.
I was riding to work one day. As I crossed a set of railroad tracks I was riding very slowly (as I always do there). Somehow, that time, I fell. I went down so hard that I separated my shoulder. The first thing I remember after riding my bike is sitting on the sidewalk (I was riding in the street) half a block away from the tracks with my phone in my hand trying to figure out who to call. I have no idea how I got there. I was wearing a helmet. Had I not been wearing a helmet, I would be a vegetable today.

So please, tell me, why is the idea of wearing a helmet such an affront to you?

Andy Seger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.