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Have You Heard the One About the Traffic School?

June 19, 1986|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

It had all the potential of becoming the most boring morning in the history of traffic schools until the teacher became a siren, a motorcyclist, an old pedestrian with a walker, an irate motorist, a drunk driver, a construction worker stopping traffic and a police officer writing a ticket, all within a few minutes.

Actor and comedian Kevin Carr was just doing his job for the Lettuce Amuse U Laff 'N Learn Terrific School.

And try as they might, 37 drowsy students in an overheated room in a Pasadena library could not sleep through the early Saturday morning show. Some of them even learned something.

Unconventional Approach

That is the guiding principle behind Lettuce, etc., whose owners, Linda and Ray Regan, believe that people learn better when information is presented with humor.

For many years, the Regans ran a conventional San Gabriel-based driving school for traffic offenders, and hired conventional teachers, many of whom were off-duty police officers. And for years they heard the usual complaints from students about having to endure long, boring classes.

Linda Regan got the idea of hiring comedians to teach when she noticed about two years ago that students gave the highest evaluations to teachers who had a good sense of humor. The school's goofy name came to Regan in the middle of one night, she said.

So she decided to tap Southern California's rich natural resource of comics by advertising in Variety, and business began improving almost immediately, she said.

Since the school started using comedians, it has almost doubled the number of classes it offers. This summer it will offer 165 Lettuce Amuse U classes from San Diego to San Francisco, up from the current 100.

Although the teaching comedians' wit and styles vary, they abide by regulations and cover the subjects that are established for the classes by the Department of Motor Vehicles, which oversees California's 350 driving schools.

The DMV apparently takes the subject of traffic offenses more seriously than the pun-filled name and approach of Lettuce Amuse U Laff 'N Learn Terrific School implies.

'It's a Serious Matter'

"I don't think that's what we had in mind when traffic schools were created," said Mario Balbiani, manager of the DMV's Traffic Violators School program. "We get thousands of people killed on streets and highways yearly. It's a serious matter."

But Lettuce Amuse U complies with all the DMV requirements, and reports turned in by people who monitor traffic classes for the California Safety Council show that it "is as good as anybody's," Balbiani conceded.

"The ones I've monitored have been good," said John Bavetta, who works as a monitor for the California Safety Council, which contracts with the DMV to monitor the classes and ensure compliance.

He gave Carr's Saturday morning class a good rating, faulting it only for the room's high temperature.

Bavetta said every Lettuce Amuse U class he has monitored has been nearly filled, compared with some others that have "five or 10 students and operate at a loss."

One of Carr's students was David Kamansky, executive director of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, who was surprised to find the class full on Memorial Day weekend.

Humorous but Not Trivialized

"I must say, I give full marks to him," said Kamansky, who took the class rather than sully his good driving record with a citation for going 35 m.p.h. in a 25-m.p.h. zone.

"The subject was presented in a charming, humorous way and yet he didn't trivialize something that is so serious. I tend to remember something that is done this way, but when its blood and death and destruction, we tend to put it out of our minds. When they scare you, you blot it out."

Douglas Hinesley, executive director of the California Safety Council, said there are about 1,400 traffic safety classes in California, more than half of them in the Los Angeles area.

Fees vary from $15 to $35. Lettuce Amuse U charges $25 for an eight-hour course, which can be taken in one all-day session or two four-hour segments at night.

The students are traffic violators who choose to attend eight hours of driver education instead of letting citations for minor infractions go on their driving records, which in many cases would affect their insurance rates.

Lettuce Amuse U has about 30 professional comedians who were hired after taking a state-required 32-hour training course and passing the state exam for an instructor's license.

"It's a great job for an actor," said Carr, who has taught traffic classes for almost a year. "You have a captive audience, and this is like a long-run play. It's a constant challenge to keep it fresh and alive."

And then, as if to illustrate his point, he turned into a stupid kid in a hot rod.

Preaching Style

In a class in Covina that same week, comic Sherry Netherland read the Vehicle Code as a preacher might the Bible, beginning with "Yea, verily, I say unto you . . . "

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