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May 21, 1990|R. RICHARD BANKS | R. Richard Banks lives in the Bay Area.

For the first half-hour of a recent Saturday that I reluctantly spent in school, our instructor attempted to persuade my fellow students that the class was not about how "to beat tickets and the system."

Welcome to traffic school. I attended an eight-hour session sponsored by the National Traffic Safety Institute, whose stated goal in the course was to "improve driving habits through changing student attitudes about driving."

The cast of characters ranged from a grandfatherly man who obviously felt out of place and embarrassed ("This is my first ticket in 18 years.") to a young woman who felt blessed to have been allowed by the judge to attend traffic school ("I thought he'd suspend my license."). More interested in keeping our insurance rates low with a clean driving record than in expanding our awareness about how our attitudes effect our driving, we were not the most enthusiastic group of students. Some expressed forthrightly their belief that the class is punishment, prison time that must be served to salvage a Department of Motor Vehicles record. Our minds were clearly not oriented to learning.

But learn I did, more than I expected, though perhaps not what the instructor had in mind.

I learned that although I've had some ticketing experiences I'd rather not repeat, other people have experienced worse. One woman, a mother of two, received a ticket as she pulled into the driveway of her son's school. Before 50 wide-eyed and mouth-dropped-in-disbelief kindergarteners, the officer wrote her a ticket for failing to come to a complete stop at the stop sign one block up the street. Her twin sons both cried, thinking their mother was on her way to jail with all the other criminals.

I learned about the perils of going too slow, even if you're legally speeding. If you go 60 m.p.h. in the fast lane you can still be ticketed for impeding the flow of traffic. I learned ways of explaining to the police why one is driving alone in the diamond lane, which is only for car pools.

Some people made their daily commute with a mannequin in the passenger seat and explained that they didn't realize the passenger had to be a real person. Others simply put a hat on the dog. A strained claim to car-pooling was made by a pregnant woman who said she was "driving for two." Then there's the story of the mortician who counted as his passenger the corpse in the back of his hearse. He noted to the officer that he did have two people in his car. As he wrote the ticket, the officer explained that a corpse is no longer a person but rather a body, which cannot count as a passenger.

In one of the class's most interesting segments, the instructor tackled the myth of speeding as a time-saver. Using a chart that showed the travel time between two points at different speeds, the instructor explained that going 5 m.p.h. or 10 m.p.h. faster saves a negligible amount of time, even if you're traveling 30 miles.

On a 10-mile trip to work, for example, it's nearly impossible to save even one minute. The moral of the story, according to our instructor, is that if you're late, you're late; accept it and stop increasing your chances of accidental death or injury by playing beat-the-clock.

On a recent trip back to San Francisco from Portland, I thought about that time-speed relationship. Going 5 m.p.h. faster might not save time but going 85 m.p.h. could cut three hours from what would be a 12-hour trip. So, anxious to get back home, that's what I did.

As I said, I learned a lot in traffic school.

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