David Rodeback's Blog

Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Life Among the Mormons, and Other Stuff

Normal Version

Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Traffic School

Will Traffic School Guy be coming soon to a comedy club near you? He almost could. Here is the latest chapter in the continuing saga of my life as an alleged scofflaw.

I rode Trax into downtown Salt Lake City this evening and found it, as always, a completely satisfactory mode of transit. The fare is more than the five kopeks (then about eight cents) I used to pay to ride the subway in Moscow, but $3.00 for a round trip is, ahem, fair. I found myself looking forward to the distant day when Utah County, too, will join the modern urban world and offer mass transit of its own (more than buses). But that is not my point.

Last week, as I explained some recent encounters with local governments, I more or less promised to report on my hour of traffic school. I wrote:

I wonder if it will be anything like my driver ed class in Idaho, when I was 14 (then the legal driving age there). Will they show us gory movies? What will my fellow students be like? Will my teacher be witty? Morose? Robotic? Will there be a test and a grade? A teacher evaluation? Homework? Group therapy? Aversion therapy? Aroma therapy? (I'm betting on that one.) Will there be other bloggers there?

Traffic School Guy

The teacher never told us his name. He is a retired -- probably long-retired -- Salt Lake City police officer with most of a head of white hair and a voice strong enough for the large room we were in. I'll call him Traffic School Guy.

There were several dozen of us there, in a room in the Matheson Courthouse that could have held at least twice as many. Assuming everyone paid the same fee I did to be there, the City of Salt Lake raked in over $2500 for that hour. I'd be surprised if they paid Traffic School Guy as much as two percent of that. (As I said last week, "it looks more like revenue than mercy.")

. . . Which is too bad, because Traffic School Guy was excellent. He managed to be witty and relaxed, but also authoritative and informative. He was not the least bit morose or robotic. He softened us up with a joke and a story. Then he spent about ten minutes hearing many of our stories. This period slightly resembled group therapy -- at least as it is portrayed on television and in movies -- but it wasn't exactly "My name is Joe, and I'm an alcoholic." Most of the folk seemed to feel they were innocent, or at least unjustly dealt with. I suspect that not one of the famous "Twelve Steps" would have drawn a majority in that room.

I didn't offer my story, but the lady who didn't understand how her turn had been improper offered hers. After she described her turn, Traffic School Guy asked rather gently if there had been an accident. She said there had. He asked if she had been injured. She said no, and he said he was glad. Then he explained -- not without some humor -- how her turn had been improper, using the storied magnetic board with little magnetized cars.

One lady with a speeding ticket insisted that she had only been five miles over the speed limit. Traffic School Guy noted that, when he was patrolling the streets, he never ticketed someone for speeding unless they were at least ten miles per hour over the limit, and then he wrote the ticket for five. But she was firm: five over, no more.

To the man ticketed for making an improper U-turn, which led to a minor accident, Traffic School Guy clearly explained how the way in which one car hit the other indicates whether the turn was attempted from the proper place in the proper lane or not.

Half or more of the students where there for speeding tickets. He asked every one of them, I think, to identify where the speed trap was -- so that all of us would be know where to watch for speed traps in the future, he said.

He was pretty hard on Utah drivers in general, illustrating all the usual pet peeves, but somehow made it seem as if he were talking about other Utah drivers, not the ones in the class. He did this deftly enough that it was only later that I reflected that he probably really meant precisely those of us who were in the class. After all, we weren't there as a reward for exemplary, safe, and legal driving.

Traffic school guy didn't overdo the "I'm on your side" shtick. He seemed actually to be on safety's side. But after ten minutes, he had firmly established that he wasn't the enemy and that we could stand to listen to him for the rest of the hour. That is not a small accomplishment.

By the way, there were no movies, gory or otherwise. There were just the big black board with an intersection painted on it, the collection of toy cars that stuck to it, and Traffic School Guy, with his sense of comic timing, his repertoire of stories, and his occasional slips into melodrama. He made it work.

"It's Pretty Obvious Why that Guy's Here"

I don't know why I thought a crowd of scofflaws might be scruffy and malodorous (which thought gave birth to last week's crack about aroma therapy). My fellow students were split more or less evenly between the two genders, scattered through the expected age range, and in general were as well dressed and groomed as any group of people I tend to be in, except on Sunday, when almost everyone dresses up.

One of the men in the class had us shaking our heads a couple of times at his stubborn insistence that he was right and Traffic School Guy was missing the point, but he didn't push it far enough or hard enough to be a real nuisance.

But there was one gentleman who amazed and scared us. In his head he managed -- seemingly effortlessly -- to transform a very clear explanation of who gets to turn left after the light turns red -- whoever was already in the intersection -- into a bizarre notion that it always has to be an even number of cars. So Traffic School Guy repeated the explanation. It didn't help. Someone near me whispered, "That's scary." Someone else added, "It's pretty obvious why that guy's here." Traffic School Guy offered the explanation a third time, this time all but winking at the rest of us. I don't think that reprise helped, either.

Then there was the lady who was ticketed for an improper turn, or some such thing. The car in front of her was well into the intersection, waiting to make a left turn, but was "chicken." This lady didn't want to wait, so she proceeded with her left turn from behind the first car, while the first car was still waiting. There was no crash, but there were flashing lights in her mirror shortly thereafter. She tried to get Traffic School Guy to show some sympathy, but he didn't take the bait. She reminded me of the people who call Dr. Laura, tell a story about being bored with a spouse and having serial affairs with others, and then want Dr. Laura to say that's okay, they're doing the right thing, it's really good for the children. It's not going to happen. (Dr. Laura would be stern; Traffic School Guy was stern but funny.)

Then there was the student whose cell phone rang loudly in the middle of the hour, but who didn't notice it until about the fourth ring, by which time Traffic School Guy had stopped talking, and he and everyone else were looking at her. "If it rings again, you get to buy pizza and beer for the class," quoth he. I think he was kidding, but there was no recurrence -- which was the point, of course.

Morsels of Traffic Wisdom

I would hate to disappoint, so I offer a few morsels of traffic wisdom which were imparted to me and my fellow scofflaws at traffic school. (Most were not news to me and will not be news to you.)

If you're in the leftmost (passing) lane on the freeway, not counting the HOV lane, and you're at the posted speed limit, say 65 mph, and someone speeds up behind you and wants to pass, you're required to move over, if you can, and let him. Otherwise, you're "impeding traffic," which gets people a few thousand tickets every year in Utah. This is true even if the other car is speeding. As Traffic School guy explained, it's to keep the speeder from wanting to weave, which is even more dangerous than just speeding.

Not wearing your seat belt is not a "primary offense" -- at least not yet -- so you can't be pulled over just for that. But seat belt use is a high priority, these days. If an officer sees you not wearing your belt, he'll look for any other violation, even a cracked windshield, or signaling a turn or lane change for two seconds instead of the required three, so he can legitimately pull you over and cite you for a seat belt violation.

Other very high priorities include aggressive driving (e.g. the aforementioned speeding weaver -- or weaving speeder) and drunk driving.

Radar can clock your speed in 0.3 seconds.

For the benefit of the people who drive on American Fork's Main Street and the children they frequently nearly kill there:

  • If a pedestrian crossing the street is in a lane adjacent to yours (no matter which side of a yellow line), you must stop and yield to the pedestrian.
  • It is illegal -- and may I say also colossally stupid? -- to pass a vehicle that is stopped for a pedestrian.

(Memo to UDOT: It's past time for a full-fledged set of traffic signals at 300 West and Main Street in American Fork. While you're at it, it's just about time for one at 200 West and Pacific Drive. You can take my word for it; I've been studying these intersections for years.)

In Conclusion

Am I a better, safer driver for having attended traffic school? I cannot think how. But it wasn't an unpleasant hour.

Can large quantities of tax money buy a very nice courthouse? Oh, yes, indeed.

As to the remaining loose ends, there was no test, no grade, no homework, no teacher evaluation, and nothing resembling aversion therapy, except the fee. I don't know whether there were any other bloggers there; I didn't ask.

Drive safely and legally, my friends. It won't always be enough, but it's still a very good idea.

Normal Version