You're driving along and you see the red light glaring in your rear-view mirror. Your mind guiltily associates the signal to pull over with something you must have done wrong.
Over the speed limit? An illegal left turn? Wrong reflex when the stop light turned yellow? Oh, my God. Maybe you'll have to pay a huge fine. Or lose your license. Your insurance will go up.
But as many know now, there is an alternative to such dreadful consequences for what may have been just a little mistake in judgment, a moment's inattention.
It's called a traffic school. And it can be fun.
There are about 50 of them in the South Bay, licensed by the state and ready to help you get off the hook--if you're willing to spend a few hours in a classroom learning more than you now know about some of the 44,228 laws that govern the use of automobiles and other mechanical contrivances on the state's roads and streets.
If your case is one of about 2,000 that are handled every month by the South Bay Municipal Court in Torrance, you'll need to spend 12 hours in school to earn forgiveness.
That means you won't have to go to court, the offense won't go on your driving record and your insurance company can't legally use the citation to raise your rates.
You won't even have to pay a fine per se. But the court will charge you $12 for costs, and the rate for the privately run traffic schools will run from $28 to $42. So your cost will be a few bucks more or less than the fine, depending on your citation.
Other courts, such as those in Inglewood and San Pedro, think you can learn your lesson quicker, so they require only eight hours in school.
Now if you had one drink too many at your favorite bar on the way home, that's a different story and you'll have to tell it to the judge. The same goes for reckless driving, too many other citations on your record, 20 miles per hour or more over the speed limit and some other offenses.
But for the lesser infractions, you get one of those two-way computer envelopes in the mail, along with a list of traffic schools approved by the local court.
You can shop around for rates and schedules. The Sears school in Torrance, for example, charges $35 for a 12-hour weekend class. Or, for the same money, the All American Traffic Violator School in Redondo Beach offers sessions spread over three evenings or consecutive Saturdays.
"We won't show you any blood and guts," an All American phone operator assured a caller.
"Going to traffic school is a pain in the buttinsky for most people," said Ron Sipes, a retired sheriff's deputy who is co-owner of the Driver Safety School in Torrance. "It's one of those lesser-of-two-evils choices, a slap on the wrist that they have to take. But they don't have to like it."
Some traffic schools go overboard in trying to take the pain and boredom out of the experience, Sipes said, like hiring comedians as instructors to keep the folks laughing between short videos of blood-and-gore traffic accidents, he said.
He showed a long list of licensed schools, featuring such names as "Lettuce Amuse U--Laff N Learn Terrific School," "The Guaranteed Not Boring Traffic School" and "Comedians Plus Learn From Us Traffic School." One offers "Free Snax, Fun and Films" and another gets its message across with the simple name, "Cheap School."
To counter such lures, Sipes, whose local school charges $30 and is affiliated with a chain of 37 others in the Los Angeles area, offers a free lottery ticket to each of his students.
Otherwise, he said, his schools concentrate on the serious side of driving a car. He said he hires only active or retired police officers as instructors "because they can bridge the gap between the traffic cop and the public."
Despite the serious message, instructors Don Neureither, a sergeant at the Lennox sheriff's station, and Harry Sigworth, a retired Torrance police lieutenant, managed to keep their students from dozing during a recent course by wheeling through a 12-hour mixture of one-liners, anecdotes, statistics, insider's information, and cop's-eye observations of human nature. Some examples:
- On joggers: "If you want to be out in the street, hang a license plate on your rear end."
- On women who apply cosmetics while driving: "We don't drive through their bathrooms while they're making up there, so why should they drive on the freeway with the rest of us while they are making up?"
- On keeping a safe distance: "At even 30 miles per hour, you're traveling at 44 feet per second. If you're 20 feet behind someone's rear bumper and he stops in one second, where will you end up?"
- On irate motorists: "This able-bodied guy got real upset when he parked in a restricted place and the cop told him, 'This space is for the physically handicapped, not the mentally handicapped.' "