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Editor's Note: January 1996.This piece was originally intended for a magazine that changed ownership before the story was finished, then ceased to exist. I had forgotten about it until recently, on the occasion of my now 16-year old son Chris getting his driver's license. I dedicate it to him, and to all first-year drivers. Welcome to the wonderful world of wheels.

The Auto Channel--Traffic School by Tim Considine


"What's wrong?," my wife asked from the passenger seat.

"I'm gonna get a ticket," I groaned, nodding toward the motorcycle cop just lowering his radar gun as we coasted by the residential sidestreet where he was parked - at about fifty.

We were to meet friends at a restaurant after an afternoon party and and my wife and I had disagreed about which was the fastest route to drop our 9-year old at home first. Armed with absolute conviction - and the car keys - I went my way. As if to prove my point, everything just seemed to break right. What little traffic there was melted away before us. We made every light. Ah, how comforting these little victories are. I was pouring it on, now, smug with my obviously sound decision - until I spied the cop.

"Uh-Oh, here he comes, my son said, growing wide-eyed as the motorcycle's red lights lit up our back window. "Poppa, I'm scared." I had once taken him to court with me to contest an unfair ticket and, in a great demonstration of our justice system (and the luck of the Irish), won when the judge agreed and dismissed my case. But this time I was pants-down guilty. "Nothing to be afraid of, Chris. I was going too fast and his job is to protect us all from speeders," I answered, thinking to myself, "but people are probably being murdered or robbed while this guy is messing with me."

"Are you gonna get in trouble?"

"Well, sure. Just like when you do something naughty, you get punished. I broke the law, so I'll have to pay a fine."

"How much?" he asked, fascinated now with the thought of his father as a fellow misbehaver rather than judge and jury.

"That'll be forty-five dollars," the court clerk said, but, because you don't have any other tickets, you could go to traffic school for eight hours instead. In that case, it'd be twenty-four dollars and traffic school would be another twenty dollars, but it won't show up on your insurance records." Well, there's no way I'm going to give an insurance company any reason to gouge us any more than they already do, so traffic school it was.

"You have to go to school?!" Chris asked incredulously. I sensed that he was really beginning to enjoy this. "What are they going to teach you?"

"Oh, they're going to teach me about what the laws say, I guess," not adding what I thought, "probably a lot of boring stuff that I know already."

I had been given a list of traffic schools by the court clerk. There were hundreds of them, many in other languages. I could do my time in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Farsi, Polish, Hebrew, Italian, Vietnamese, or even Tagalog, the language of the Philippine Islands. "I'd probably learn as much as in English," I groused to myself.

Some promised to break up the hours with pizza or other snacks. Others emphasized low prices, like the one simply called Cheap School. Most promised improvisation, surprises, and comedy to one group or another with cutesy, catchy names. For instance, VIP Showtime-Comdy Films or the Singles Traffic Skool Fun/Casual, the latter presumably for swinging lawbreakers.

Whatever they called the damn thing, the fact was that it was going to be 8 hours of my time, a full work day blown. After putting it off as long as possible, I finally bit the bullet and chose a school that was not far from me. Laffs*R*Us-Low Cost- Fun, the ad said.

My boy and I left the house at the same time in the morning. I planned to drive to his Little League game as soon as I was finished that evening at 5:00. "See you later, guy," I said, but before I could send him off as usual, he giggled, "Have a good day at school, Poppa," and bounded down the stairs to his carpool ride, grinning ear to ear. My day of comedy had begun.

At 9:01, three other lawbreakers and I were pacing the sidewalk in front of the school, now locked up, with no sign of life inside. Where the hell was everybody? Tuesday at 8:45, right? A fourth, this one a biker with fringes on his black leathers, arrived and tried the door. Then, pulling off his helmet, he turned to us to ask, "Is this the first joke?"

A few anxious minutes later our instructor arrived, and we filed into a small windowless room behind him, each taking one of the twenty or so folding chairs arranged in rows in front of a portable lecturn. "Well, no funny hat or baggy pants," I thought to myself.

Mr. Ortiz was about forty, I reckoned, pleasant looking and, well, on first impression, sort of gentle to be funny. We all exchanged quick looks as he unpacked his briefcase, putting a couple of videotapes next to the VCR and TV behind him. What else did he have in there, silly hats, pop guns, whoopie cushions?

At about 9:10 another lawbreaker hurried in, obviously late and a little confused. "Am I in the right place?, he asked, holding up the court paper. "You looking for the HerbaLife seminar?, Ortiz deadpanned. "Uh, no. I, uh, this isn't traffic school?" the newcomer stammered. "This is an Herbalife seminar, but you're welcome to join us," Ortiz continued, fingering the papers in his open briefcase. Then, just as the straggler was about to turn away, Ortiz smiled easily and told him, "No, you're in the right place. Take a seat." Then turning to us, Ortiz introduced himself and began. "This is a traffic safety school for traffic offenders. No juveniles, no DUIs, right? There are special classes for juveniles and DUI (driving under the influence). No punks and no drunks here.

We all chuckled and relaxed a little and, when Ortiz asked for our court papers and payment for the session, moved as one toward the lectern. "Jeez, one at a time," he quipped, recoiling in mock horror, "it's like 'Night of the Living Traffic Offenders'." "It's just that we're all so happy to be here," said the straggler, who was officially made Fan Monitor. "Plug it in, circulate the viruses," Ortiz told him, motioning the rest of us to our seats as he filed our money and paperwork, "Talk quietly among yourselves about traffic, will you."

Then, one by one, we were asked to introduce ourselves and state our violation. Greg, the biker, started off. Black and articulate, Greg was the salesmanager of a Nissan dealership. He was ticketed at 80 on the freeway, ferrying a car from another dealer. He was definitely guilty, he said laughing, just sorry it was in a van instead of one of the beautiful new 300ZXs. A few of us nodded in appreciation. "Yeah, zero- to-traffic school in 6 seconds," said Ortiz.

Bruce was also black. Dapper, in matching khakis right out of the Banana Republic catalogue, Bruce was a computer programmer in his early thirties. He'd landed here for throwing a gum wrapper out the window of his car. The cop had charged him with dumping on the highway, a $250 fine. "Did you moon'im first?" asked Greg. Even Ortiz was surprised, "When he walked up, did he have the wrapper stuck in his teeth? You dating this guy's daughter?"

Next was Tony, a women's garment manufacturer. I swear, the guy was a dead ringer for David Nelson and I half expected Ozzie and Harriet to come through the door and explain that it was all a big misunderstanding. Tony was cited for an illegal left turn, but was vague about the details. "When did you enter the intersection?" Ortiz asked. "About a month ago," David replied. "And I got this guy all day!" laughed Oritiz, rolling his eyes.

He was no comedian, but I had to admit Ortiz was amusing. His style was to gently poke fun. And while most of the humor was at our expense, it wasn't done in a cruel way. We were the lawbreakers, no doubt, and he was the teacher, but in these first few minutes, he'd already loosened us up and got us laughing at ourselves. Even if I didn't learn anything, at least it wasn't going to be as boring as I'd imagined.

John was a student from Canada, working on a PHD in management here. He'd gotten his ticket for going the wrong way on a one-way street. He'd simply taken a chance and lost, no hard feelings. On the other hand, Helen, the Polish lady in her 60s seated behind me, was confused and upset by her ticket, an illegal left turn. We all listened in sympathy as she told briefly of losing both parents to Aushcwitz at 10 and then spending five years in a German prison camp. It became obvious that she'd entered an intersection when the light was yellow and turned left on a red light, but Ortiz handled it gently, first telling us all that it had been determined that the average city driver could be written up for 2000 traffic violations a year - assuming, of course, that Big Brother was really watching.

I introduced myself as a writer (Ortiz had already observed that I was jotting down notes) and told about my speeding citation - deserved, but the first in a while, though there were many when I was younger. "Speeding is a birth defect," Ortiz remarked.

It was time for a break and there were some jokes about not showing up afterwards. "It's my day off. I could be flying my radio-control plane right now," moaned Greg. Ortiz offered a sobering thought. It's actually a felony to sign up for traffic school and not spend the required time. Funny, a friend of mine told me he found out about a certain school where you could just buy your way out. He did it, forked over $75 and they signed his paperwork. In truth, it was probably only because I am a parent that I didn't even consider that option, but I had no idea my pal was a felon.

Needless to say, everybody showed up after the break and Ortiz began to get to the nitty gritty about the rules concerning lights, speed limits, and street markings. Okay, time to check out, I thought. I know all this stuff. But one piece of information did catch my ear. Ortiz said that yellow lights are timed to be about the length of the first digit of the speed limit - two seconds in a 25 zone, three, in a 35, etc. A handy little tidbit I'd never heard before and certainly the explanation for being caught offguard by one particular yellow light on my carpool route. "Of course," I thought, "because it's near the school, it's two seconds, not three like the others." Recently I had been stung when I overheard Sarah, an 11-year old, tell my son in the back seat, "Your dad goes through lots of red lights." Well, little lady, no more.

Then Ortiz moved to the rules governing street markings, inadvertantly causing everybody but Helen to chuckle when he said, "Let's do some lines." "Not me," answered Greg, John adding, "Like Nancy says, 'Just say no.'" But, son of a gun, if Ortiz didn't clear up another carpool question with his next subject. In an effort to circumvent a huge bottleneck coming back onto our neighborhood boulevard in the afternoon, I take a shortcut that necessitates making a, shall we say, "extra-legal" U-turn, a fact that dear Sarah has also noted to my son. Come to find out, it's okay. Because it's in a residential area with no public buildings around and because it's done at an intersection, albeit one where the cross street doesn't go through, it's a perfectly legal U-turn.

As the day wore on, Ortiz got less funny and a bit more purposeful. Regulations prescribed that a certain amount of information had to be covered, but under the circumstances, he kept it as light as possible, even warning us about the now frequently laughable films we saw that date from simpler times, though I'm not sure that even cro-magnon men would believe some of the writing in these beauties.

But the statistics were real. Funny, I don't think it's anybody's business, least of all any government agency, whether I am stupid enough not to wear a seat belt in my car. I mean, it doesn't affect anyone outside my car, right? So, I oppose the seatbelt law. In my car, however, I've always been adamant that everyone buckle up, my theory being that anyone who doesn't is like a loose rock in my tin can - a real danger to me. Ortiz gave some specific figures to back that up. Twentyfive percent of all injuries in accidents are caused by unbelted people hitting others in the car. At just 35 mph, a person weighing 150 pounds hits with an impact of 5280 pounds. Not in my car, bub.

I still don't agree with the seatbelt law, but the figures paint a pretty convincing picture. Eightyfive percent of all deaths from traffic accidents are people who aren't wearing belts. It's estimated that seventy percent of those could be saved if they were buckled up.

"So what'd you learn in traffic school, Poppa?" my guy asked after his Little League game. I knew he would and I was ready. I told him that I guess the main thing I learned was that driving was even more serious than I thought. Seeing his puzzled look, I continued, "You know how war is such a terrible thing because so many people die, right?" He nodded, yes. "Well, in the last war we were in, in Vietnam, in ten years, 56,000 people from this country died." "Wow, that's a lot," he said. "Right," I told him, "but every year over 58,000 people die here in traffic accidents - every year." "Jeez!" he almost whispered. I was on a roll, now. "Do you know that more Americans have been killed in traffic accidents than in all the wars we've ever fought. That's how serious driving is - and that's why it's important for us to drive safely." He nodded solemnly and there was a long silence before he looked over and asked, "How fast y'goin, Poppa?"

Copyright Tim Considine, 1996
Editor-at-Large, The Auto Channel