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A camera has caught me going 67 in a 55 zone, so I must attend Traffic School or pay $223 to the State of Arizona plus take three points on my driving record. I only have to pay $180 for Traffic School and no points, so this is a no-brainer for me, girl scout that I am.
I walk into a small room on the third floor of a bank, quickly doing more numbers: while the room is no bigger than 13’ by 13’, there are 28 chairs plus the instructor’s desk up front. If everyone has paid what I’ve paid, that means this five-hour defensive driving course is generating over $5000 for the State of Arizona.
I make note of it. In fact, I decide to take notes on the whole class, just to be a butthead. I’m sure I’ll catch the instructor making some kind of mistake, then I can submit my notes to his supervisor and get my money back.
5:15 I’ve stood in line and handed all the required information to Paul Newman, our instructor. Apparently Paul never really died; he just went undercover as a Traffic School instructor. We also learn that he teaches golf and Bible School. His lavender polo is buttoned up all the way to the neck, a gold cross hanging on a chain under his collar, exposed. As you know, Paul is not tall and has a medium build, but could take down a rhino if he wanted to. Paul is focused and prepared. Paul has done this before.
5:30 With the League of Nations seated and quiet, Paul begins his presentation. “It is uniquely dangerous to drive in the state of Arizona!” he shouts. He clicks his laser mouse and all kinds of statistics show up on the wall, proving him correct. He will do this repeatedly throughout the night. “There are TBI warehouses all around the State of Arizona! Did you know that? Warehouses for people with Traumatic Brain Injuries. They can’t work, they’ve lost their families, they’re divorced. They are abandoned.”
None of us wants a TBI or to be abandoned, so we listen intently.
“Can anyone define ‘herd mentality’ for me?” Paul calls out. A man mumbles, “Go with the flow of traffic?” and Paul comes down hard on him. “No! It means ‘follow the impulsive, reckless PIG’! Do you want to be described like that?”
We all shook our heads. We weren’t impulsive reckless pigs. Were we?
5:45 “Wear. Your. SEATBELT!” Paul shouts. “Why wouldn’t you?” He shows us a brief video of a chubby taxi driver falling asleep at the wheel. The taxi driver’s eyes get wide just before he’s slammed into the front passenger’s seat then tossed into the backseat, where he is pressed like putty against the rear passenger’s door. “This is a flying object!” Paul says. “Do you think this 220 pound flying object could do damage to you or your children?”
Yes we did.
6:05 We have a State Farm representative in our group who got a ticket too. He’s a know-it-all, seemingly unaffected by Paul’s safety insistence. “What causes crashes?” Paul asks us. State Farm pipes up: “We had a situation not long ago where a young couple was coming back from Mexico and I guess the girl was ‘pleasing her boyfriend’ on the road, and they crashed.”
Not a snicker was heard, except from State Farm, who quickly snickered down.
“You’re on to something,” said Paul, his blue eyes void of humor. “What causes crashes is inattentive driving. That, and drunks. But we’ll get to the drunks later. Right now I want to focus on the concept of ‘right of way’.”
7:05 Paul is obsessed with this concept. He shows us a few videos of pedestrians getting kicked like footballs across intersections when drivers insist on having the right of way. Cars full of people also fly by, airborne, hit by other drivers utilizing their right of way. “Do NOT enter an intersection until it is clear and safe to do so!” Paul pauses, looking around. “When should you enter an intersection?” he asks.
When it is clear and safe to do so, we respond.
7:30 Paul lets us out on break. We herd to the restrooms across the halls, then herd back.
7:45 “Assume everyone on the road is drunk!” Paul barks. Some of us shift in our seats and glance around. Must we assume this? Was it you? “Your driver’s license is a guest pass, folks. A guest pass. Driving is not a right. You don’t even have the right of way.”
I feel like I’ve backed over my own child instead of driving 12 miles over the speed limit in the desert north of town.
I tiny-whisper to the girl sitting next to me, “What’d you do?”
She was going 11 over.
Paul sees us whispering. “Girls! Under what circumstances should you enter an intersection?”
“When it is clear and safe to do so, sir!” I say.
Paul seems pleased. “You understand what I’m driving at then. Stay out of a crash.”
8:15 Paul is angry again, even though our smart-aleck State Farm rep has apologized for popping off. We all gave Paul our money orders long ago and have already seen fiery crashes, people obviously getting killed. We are wondering what more Paul wants. Somebody else tests him: “So are we supposed to be clairvoyant or what?”
Paul shrugs like only Paul can do, gazing at all of us and each of us. “If that’s what it takes to stay out of a crash.” He picks his teeth with a fingernail, as if he eats.
9:15 “Getting a DUI in Arizona will cost you dearly,” Paul tells us. Obviously some of us know that, but some of us don’t. Some of us cringe; some of us perk up. Everybody likes to hear a good DUI story, but all Paul does is click and point to the offenses and penalties, projected for us on the wall. Apparently getting a DUI in Arizona is equivalent to attempted murder. “A DUI in Arizona will cause a gaping hole in your life for five years at the very least,” Paul intonates, reminding me of a priest in front of his parishioners.
I thought murder would get you more than that.
9:30 We all cringe as Paul gears up to show the videos again—the fat cab driver falling asleep behind the wheel, a pedestrian getting punted from the crosswalk to a boulevard, a speeding car caught on camera running a red light and missing two cars plus a mother and her children in the crosswalk by the grace of God. I am talking a split second. It’s an amazing video, the best part of the class.
We’re entranced again by other people’s stupidity and selfishness.
9:45 We know that the class is almost over, but nobody makes a move to leave. “Anger is temporary insanity,” Paul tells us. “We have to be the adults on the road, gracious on the road. Do we think that shaving five minutes or three minutes off a commute is going to make a difference? Me first, me first…are we caught up in a mindless race?” Paul pauses. “We’ve been swept up in a mindless fantasy, folks. A mindless fantasy.”
I line up to collect my certificate of completion, then ride the elevator down three floors to the parking lot, where my car gently weeps.
Three days later these words leave my mouth: “I think everyone should have to take this class every four years or as often as it takes to get it through their head that they should not enter an intersection, or even a relationship, until it’s clear and safe to do so.”
Such an easy convert.