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A Little Laughter Helps With Traffic School Lessons

Times Staff Writer

Greg Drilling teaches traffic school. He’s used to seeing people bored out of their minds. By the time Drilling enters the room, they’re slumped in their chairs, “I could kill” written all over their faces.

Drilling’s “students” are people who commit traffic violations. They speed. They go the wrong way on one-way streets. They swerve to avoid skunks and hit cars. They “double park” while kissing their girlfriends good night.

Drilling knows them--he’s written their names in books before. Drilling is a police officer who thinks he’s Rodney Dangerfield or David Letterman, his look-alike.

These students go to “school” to avoid stiff fines and having their record stamped with the kind of penalty that makes insurance agents stand up and shout, “Wow, look how the premiums jumped on this one!” For this convenient “out"--traffic school--they don’t, however, show up thinking they’ll get Eddie Murphy instead of The Most Boring Evening You’ve Ever Sat Through.

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So Drilling is a big surprise.

“This is only seven hours,” he announced to the 55 students at a weeknight of United Driving School, a private business licensed by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. As the session began, the students’ hang-dog looks were matched only by the harsh glare of fluorescent lights and sterile gray walls that could make a killer confess.

Longer Than Love

“Think about that,” Drilling said, making them squirm. “Seven hours . . . Why, most relationships in California last only half that long.”

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“Now, there’s no smoking,” he added.

“I monitor people, though, and if anybody goes into shakes, convulsions, starts speaking in tongues, OK, I’ll consider a break.”

This time, big guffaws.

“I’ve been doing this two years,” he said. “My primary job is"--a pause; drum roll, please--"with the San Diego Police Department. That’s right, I’m a cop. So, get it over with. Some cops shouldn’t be cops, right?” A few heads nodded quietly. “And there’s some citizens . . . “

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Drilling has been a police officer for 16 years. He has hiked a beat, been a traffic officer and is now a coordinator overseeing the department’s juvenile activities--which doesn’t mean he checks for immaturity; he oversees kids. To Drilling, kids are the cat’s pajamas.

They’ve taught him a lot over the years, mostly about humor and truth-telling. Drilling marvels at the honesty of kids, especially his own, two boys and a girl. Adults play “games, games, games,” Drilling said, which is one reason humor appeals: it cuts through pretensions.

That’s the main reason Drilling uses the art of the stand-up comic to ram home points about the evil of drunk driving and the fact that an automobile isn’t the latest missile from the Pentagon.

“Tomorrow night, we’ll have our graduation ceremony,” he said, somberly addressing the 55 who have to endure this guy two nights in a row (for 3 1/2 hours each night). “If you want to invite family members, great. In my mind, this is special.” Pretending to fight back tears, he puts on a tape of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

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At that point, a blonde woman turned to a red-haired man, as if to ask, “Is this guy for real?”

United Driving School is in Mission Valley, next door to a bar populated by athletes who often have imbibed one too many.

Field Trip to a Bar

“Tomorrow night, we’ll have a field trip to Bully’s,” Drilling said. “I’ll point out all the DUI’s inside. You know, the 1.1’s, the 2.2’s (referring to blood alcohol level). Boy, those 2.2’s are somethin’.”

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Drilling explained that even he has had two tickets in two years. Once, he was speeding--"80 in a 55. Can you believe it?” Then with his best Don Rickles look, he wondered aloud, “Well, I’m not perfect, am I?”

At a point when the class might be thinking, “Hey, this guy’s a lark, and so is the class,” Drilling quietly, thoughtfully, cooled down. He subtly brought home points that made several faces wince in recognition, or shudder at the thought of coming home stiff in an ambulance.

“The risk with my approach,” he said later in an interview, “is that they’ll forget. They’ll think it’s a joke. Humor has its place. Humor is my life. It’s my release, my escape. I lose it, I die. But the class can’t be totally humorous, or it loses its punch. When it’s time to be serious, I’m serious. You have to know the proper level.

“If I go in and say, ‘Don’t drink and drive,’ they just sit there. I haven’t an ounce of credibility. They’ve heard that before, many, many times. You have to know what the level is.”

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Drilling, 36, who wore a natty three-piece suit, has a friendly, unassuming manner--and a deft sense of what level to try next. Drilling is the best of several United teachers, said Rick Milford, who runs United Driving School. He has somehow mastered humor as a zero-to-60 attention-getter.

“Class is supposed to be fun,” Milford said. “If it isn’t--and we’re there to punish ‘em--we might as well put tacks on the seat. When we reach the day that these schools don’t exist--when cops give tickets to make money--we’re all in trouble. All it is then is a business where no one learns.”

“I think he’s great,” Teri Fredericks, 30, said of Drilling. Fredericks is a hospital administrator and a traffic school student. “I came in with a total negative attitude. I expected to be thoroughly bored. He got me into it right from the start. I actually dug it and found myself thinking, ‘I’m looking forward to tomorrow night.’ Can this be right? This is traffic school, isn’t it?”

“I expected something grueling,” said Toni Regent, “but he’s delightful. He kept me awake and entertained. I think he’s probably a frustrated actor, but he does keep to business and gets serious when he has to.”

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Drilling denies the “frustrated” charge, says he isn’t a Letterman-in-hiding. He does have a background in music--he once played for P.D. 5, a police band--but claims he really likes his work, especially the moonlighting gig as a traffic school teacher.

Business Is Saving Lives

“I’m not frustrated,” he said, “because I’m doing it. I teach people the law--I hope to save lives. I get a rush out of makin’ ‘em laugh.”

He also has anecdotes from a cop’s notebook. A native of San Diego and graduate of St. Augustine High, Drilling patrolled for 12 years. His first day, he and his veteran partner saw a zigzagging driver. When they finally caught him, Drilling snapped the handcuffs to the driver’s steering wheel and yelled back, “Hey, I got him!” Trouble was, he had forgotten to put the driver’s hands in the cuffs. The guy drove off with a roar, taking Drilling’s $40 handcuffs with him.

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“We all make mistakes,” Drilling said with a shrug.

He once stopped an errant motorist for making a U-turn in front of a sign that said such a move was illegal. Drilling asked him why he had done that.

“I was driving down the street thinking, ‘I don’t want to turn,’ ” the guy said. “But all the signs kept saying, ‘No, U turn.’ ”

One message of Drilling’s is that we’re all sinners on the roadways, that aside from drunk or reckless driving--the kind that kills--a lot of what happens isn’t much worth the anger or venom it gets.

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Statistics, for instance, bemuse Drilling. “If you put your left foot in ice water,” he said, “and your right in boiling water, according to statistics, you’re comfortable.”

“Anybody from Texas?” he asked the class. “I spent a week one night in Houston.”

“Don’t be caught driving in Texas under a warrant for your arrest,” he said. “They have stuff in those computers dating to 1842.”

“The definition of paranoia,” he said, “is waking up and discovering someone has stolen all your furniture and replaced it with exact replicas.”

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It’s Different in L.A.

One person asked how driving enforcement differed in Los Angeles. “I think a Martian could come to L.A.,” Drilling said, “and nobody would question ‘em. L.A. is different .”

In a discourse on driving under the influence, Drilling warned that drugs are equally risky. He did so with touches of humor spiced between warnings.

“People will argue and argue, but marijuana affects driving,” he said. “It affects coordination. Cocaine is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money. If you’re gonna swallow PCP, you might as well swallow a stick of dynamite.

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“I’ve seen alcohol in Visine bottles--people who miss their eyes and hit their mouths. I once stopped a 21-year-old sailor on Rosecrans Avenue in Point Loma. He had booze in a baby bottle. He had a plastic baby in a car seat and was trying to calm it, leaning over the seat cooing at it. Ah, the things I’ve seen . . . “

Later, as the class nodded off from too much errant seriousness, Drilling zapped them with a story.

He once saw an elderly, handicapped man using a walker, limping through a crosswalk. The fact that three light changes took place, and cars zoomed by as if locked in a demolition derby, seemed not to faze the man. Finally, Drilling reached him.

“Sir, if you’re not careful, you’re gonna get killed!

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The man just stared. “Hey, buddy, you don’t live to be 86 by taking chances, do you? Buzz off, cop.”

With a look that said, “What could I say? " Drilling got a laugh--one of many in a night where the traffic offenders left with a smile, and the recognition that this cop was sure different.


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