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Gruesome Details at Traffic School Class

June 27, 1987

The other night I hurried to La Canada, gulped my dinner and arrived at my traffic school class at 5:56. I was actually in quite a philosophical mood. Sure, I'd been madder than hell when I got the ticket. Sure, I resented the time I was going to have to spend sitting still (not something I'm good at). But I planned to ask several questions and make the best of it.

The instructor started off nicely enough. He had a lively manner as he began telling us about himself. He talked about his family then gave examples of how stressful his life as a policeman had been before he retired. Good, I thought, this is where he earns sympathy for the officers who risk their lives to protect us. I'm a writer, so I look for things like that.

He talked about caring about people, and about his assignment to traffic detail. Nice transition, I thought. He's going to segue into why we should be careful on the road. He had me, I was a believer. Then he went into the details of the first terrible accident he had had to deal with. Details--explicit details, complete with theatrical voice and gestures. OK, I thought, one for shock value, just to make sure we were paying attention.

But he didn't stop. He went on. And on. And on. And on. I tried to block what he was saying by studying the print of a spacecraft on the wall. I examined my fellow classmates, committing their images to memory feature by feature. The tactic worked for about 10 minutes; I heard but I didn't react.

But one description continued to follow another. My heart began to race and pound . . . I could see it jump with each beat. I stuck my fingers in my ears and found if I dug them in and moved them back and forth a little I only heard a word here and there.

Finally about 6:25 he stopped. Paper and pencils were passed around and I figured we were moving on to something a little less upsetting. I was wrong. He wrote a few numbers on the chalk board, then he started another gruesome story! I made it out the door and went down the stairs. I was shaking and close to tears.

Was I overreacting? Sure, some would think so, but I wasn't overreacting for me. This man had come into a room of people he didn't know and for nearly half an hour he'd pushed emotional buttons without knowing what those buttons did. He meant to, of course. He knew he was telling us terrible things because in the same breath he told us how terrible these things had been for him to see. He said there were memories he couldn't get out of his head after some 20 years.

Well, now he's given me memories that will jump with lightning speed into my head, day and night for at least a month. Does he have the right to do that just because I chose to go to traffic school rather than have the ticket show on my record?

According to the Automobile Club of Southern California, educational research on scare tactics shows little if any lasting value to the "blood and guts" approach. The club's Public Safety Department does not recommend that technique for use in driver education/improvement classes.

Now to be fair, I suspect this instructor is a pretty nice man. I suspect he's gotten calloused to his words and is convinced his verbal pictures will save lives. I also suspect he's not the only one with this opinion or approach. But I feel it's mental abuse to inflict these kinds of details on the unwary. And I think it should stop.

KARIN IRELAND

La Crescenta

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