SAN DIEGO — Greg Drilling teaches traffic school. He's used to seeing people bored out of their minds. By the time Drilling enters the room, they're slumped in their chairs, "I could kill" written all over their faces.
Drilling's "students" are people who commit traffic violations. They speed. They go the wrong way on one-way streets. They swerve to avoid skunks and hit cars. They "double park" while kissing their girlfriends good night.
Drilling knows them--he's written their names in books before. Drilling is a police officer who thinks he's Rodney Dangerfield or David Letterman, his look-alike.
These students go to "school" to avoid stiff fines and having their record stamped with the kind of penalty that makes insurance agents stand up and shout, "Wow, look how the premiums jumped on this one!" For this convenient "out"--traffic school--they don't, however, show up thinking they'll get Eddie Murphy instead of The Most Boring Evening You've Ever Sat Through.
So Drilling is a big surprise.
"This is only seven hours," he announced to the 55 students at a weeknight of United Driving School, a private business licensed by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. As the session began, the students' hang-dog looks were matched only by the harsh glare of fluorescent lights and sterile gray walls that could make a killer confess.
Longer Than Love
"Think about that," Drilling said, making them squirm. "Seven hours . . . Why, most relationships in California last only half that long."
"Now, there's no smoking," he added.
"I monitor people, though, and if anybody goes into shakes, convulsions, starts speaking in tongues, OK, I'll consider a break."
This time, big guffaws.
"I've been doing this two years," he said. "My primary job is"--a pause; drum roll, please--"with the San Diego Police Department. That's right, I'm a cop. So, get it over with. Some cops shouldn't be cops, right?" A few heads nodded quietly. "And there's some citizens . . . "
Drilling has been a police officer for 16 years. He has hiked a beat, been a traffic officer and is now a coordinator overseeing the department's juvenile activities--which doesn't mean he checks for immaturity; he oversees kids. To Drilling, kids are the cat's pajamas.
They've taught him a lot over the years, mostly about humor and truth-telling. Drilling marvels at the honesty of kids, especially his own, two boys and a girl. Adults play "games, games, games," Drilling said, which is one reason humor appeals: it cuts through pretensions.
That's the main reason Drilling uses the art of the stand-up comic to ram home points about the evil of drunk driving and the fact that an automobile isn't the latest missile from the Pentagon.
"Tomorrow night, we'll have our graduation ceremony," he said, somberly addressing the 55 who have to endure this guy two nights in a row (for 3 1/2 hours each night). "If you want to invite family members, great. In my mind, this is special." Pretending to fight back tears, he puts on a tape of "Pomp and Circumstance."
At that point, a blonde woman turned to a red-haired man, as if to ask, "Is this guy for real?"
United Driving School is in Mission Valley, next door to a bar populated by athletes who often have imbibed one too many.
Field Trip to a Bar
"Tomorrow night, we'll have a field trip to Bully's," Drilling said. "I'll point out all the DUI's inside. You know, the 1.1's, the 2.2's (referring to blood alcohol level). Boy, those 2.2's are somethin'."
Drilling explained that even he has had two tickets in two years. Once, he was speeding--"80 in a 55. Can you believe it?" Then with his best Don Rickles look, he wondered aloud, "Well, I'm not perfect, am I?"
At a point when the class might be thinking, "Hey, this guy's a lark, and so is the class," Drilling quietly, thoughtfully, cooled down. He subtly brought home points that made several faces wince in recognition, or shudder at the thought of coming home stiff in an ambulance.
"The risk with my approach," he said later in an interview, "is that they'll forget. They'll think it's a joke. Humor has its place. Humor is my life. It's my release, my escape. I lose it, I die. But the class can't be totally humorous, or it loses its punch. When it's time to be serious, I'm serious. You have to know the proper level.
"If I go in and say, 'Don't drink and drive,' they just sit there. I haven't an ounce of credibility. They've heard that before, many, many times. You have to know what the level is."
Drilling, 36, who wore a natty three-piece suit, has a friendly, unassuming manner--and a deft sense of what level to try next. Drilling is the best of several United teachers, said Rick Milford, who runs United Driving School. He has somehow mastered humor as a zero-to-60 attention-getter.