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PROFILE : A Crash Course on Traffic-School Instructor's Life : Cop turned teacher Lori Turner entertains as well as lectures to teach violators their lesson.

January 13, 1994|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The woman who needed traffic school the most flunked before class even got under way.

There was a loud knock at the door as everyone settled in for four bleak hours of instruction about bad attitude on the road. It was a Ventura cop, seeking one of the students.

"Is there a problem?" asked the instructor.

"Yes, there is a problem," the cop replied.

The student the cop was seeking, sent to traffic school for a low-grade moving violation, had shown some difficulty in driving to traffic class. Or maybe parking was her problem. In any event, she'd crashed into three cars parked outside before finally docking her own and reporting to class.

"She thought she was going to 'take care of it' on break or something," says an incredulous Lori Turner, the class instructor, in recalling the incident. "She was just not all there."

Most traffic school students are all there, however, even if yet another one arrived for class completely drunk. ("Well, I just got her out of there and home safely," says Turner. "Who can figure?")

Turner, on the face of it, has the worst teaching job around.

Her students have all been caught breaking the law, have paid more than $100 to plead guilty and now have altered their work and life schedules to sit in cold plastic chairs beneath fluorescent lights for eight hours of instruction on such scintillating topics as proper merging, deciphering right-of-way and knowing when to cross the double yellow line.

They arrive annoyed, held hostage to the threat of being reported to their insurers. Their mood is made worse, often, by the additional assessment of $36 for the class--this on top of traffic court fees already paid. A simple U-turn approaches the $200 mark. They take their seats, most with long faces and some with resentment. To say they're ready to learn at this point is to suggest that buying a bridge in Brooklyn is quite a good idea.

Enter Lori Turner, traffic school instructor to more than 20,000 Ventura County lawbreakers over the last 12 years. Former Santa Barbara cop. Mother of two. Bedrock Midwesterner.

"Hey, there are so many horror stories out there about traffic school," she concedes. "I mean, I wouldn't exactly be an up person if I had to come here, either."

One of the first things she'll do is show a 1950s cartoon, "Motormania," in which a very proper, upright Mr. Wheeler becomes a complete monster when behind the wheel. Your basic Jekyll and Hyde. Like so many in the class.

"Like me," Turner will tell her students. "The truth is, I was a Mrs. Wheeler. I've been there."

Quickly Turner has the class laughing. One student insists her brother was arrested in 1959 for driving barefoot--this despite the absence of state statutes against the practice. "Yeah?" asks Turner, handing over a 600-page manual of driving laws. "Tell you what. I'll buy you a lobster dinner if you find the code."

Scowlers in the plastic chairs are smiling. Yes, they will be treated, at the close of the first night, to the classic movie "Red Asphalt II," a less-than-you'd-expect-given-what-you've-heard collage of bloody crashes. But for the most part, Lori Turner has spent the night instructing and entertaining not on driving minutiae but on that most vexing of human subjects: attitude.

As a result she has turned a miserable crowd into civil subjects at worst and engaged students at best.

*

She got the idea to enter law enforcement back home in Indiana. She'd been brutally attacked--that her jaw was broken is one of the few details she recalls of the incident. But she does recall her handling by male police. It was chauvinistic, less than sensitive, she says.

"It made me think: 'There ought to be more women in law enforcement.' "

She received a bachelor of science degree in criminology at Indiana State before becoming an intern with the Santa Barbara Police Department, which ultimately would hire her and send her on a quick upward career path. She went from writing traffic tickets to becoming a specialist in collecting evidence at accident and crime scenes.

And that was a turning point for the young, idealistic Turner. It blunted her expectations, taught her harder lessons still. "You lose your naivete," she says. "You're in the middle of tragedy all the time. You become so aware of how cruel the human race can be."

She would later become the SBPD's training officer for new recruits. That was OK, except for some of the John Wayne types who were taken out of their game by being guided by a self-effacing, funny woman who used brains instead of brawn to make her point. ("It's not enough to be good," says Turner of being a woman cop. "Everybody's testing you.")

Indeed, Lori Turner is remembered in Santa Barbara as being "one of the vanguard" among women who changed the dynamics of the department, said Capt. Greg Stock. Stock should know: He was Turner's training officer.

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