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Traffic school can be funny, but the bottom line isn't

After receiving a completely bogus moving violation for making a rolling stop in Chinatown, I decided to go to traffic school to keep my insurance costs in check.

To my surprise, I learned that they still held traffic school in actual classrooms and not just online. The online courses' advertised rates were cheaper — in some cases by half — than the brick-and-mortar variety. Who would pay more to watch gory traffic films with strangers when you could stay home in your pajamas?

The approved list of schools included Comedians, Comedy and Fun, Comedy Course for Less. Maybe the classroom courses were a real scream; I thought. Or maybe they were a hookup scene. Many schools let you select your classmates; there is a gay traffic school, and various ethnic schools.

But the receptionist at Comedy for Less traffic school was not very funny. When I mentioned her snippy tone did not signal big laughs ahead, she insisted I would be delighted with the instructor's "light-hearted" approach to driving safety.

The guy at Cheap Traffic School For Less, on the other hand, was a real card, suggesting "Me!" when I asked who you might meet at traffic school.

I went with Pizza for U Comedians Traffic School, whose listing promised "checkered tablecloths" and free slices at the break. The school had hundreds of classrooms, the receptionist told me, but only one opening, in Northridge.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I found Northridge to be one of the least funny places in Los Angeles. But on a dark and drizzly Saturday I arrived at 8 a.m. sharp to find a ground-floor strip mall office with three rows of straight chairs, a desk and a TV/DVD setup on a stand. The linoleum was grimy and the heat wouldn't come on. Potted ivies in a corner failed to relieve the gloom.

"Seven people, wow," the instructor greeted us. "No wonder they almost canceled this class."

Dressed in dad jeans and a leather jacket, the instructor radiated world-weary sarcasm. The traffic school industry is on the skids, but it's not because of the Internet, he said. Online classes have been around for a while, so the recent downturn is a mystery.

It turned out the class name had been changed and there was no pizza. Nor was romance in the air. One moment held promise: A man and woman were late coming back from a break. But they walked in separately.

Our instructor, however, was funny. The 19-year veteran traffic school teacher, whose name is being withheld to protect his job, made one thing clear: He was on our side. While we learned about the vehicle code and traffic safety, the class also operated as a command center for sedition against traffic ticket autocracy.

The first thing the teacher told us was that most of the rules posted on the wall were "a lie," except the prohibition on alcohol.

"You should have gotten bombed before you got here," he said.

Half of the other students were under 35, and fully Internet savvy. The consensus was that seven hours online was just too annoying, even in the comfort of your home. "I won't be able to focus if I'm at the house," said Vanessa M. Torres, 22, of Chatsworth, a tech support worker and college student. "It will go faster if we just did it in person."

Sean Letzer, 19, a Simi Valley college student and retail employee, said he thought appearing in person would better help him change his driving habits, which have produced a string of speeding tickets.

We traded gripping stories about our tickets, which, amazingly enough, were almost all completely bogus. That wouldn't have happened online.

The instructor stalked up and down in front of our chairs, holding up the 2012 California Vehicle Code. "This is what they nailed you on, folks," he said.

He said he had received 26 citations in his lifetime, which seemed like a lot, and he told us how he fought some of them.

For instance, did you know you can fight a ticket through the mail? he asked. The cop might be paid overtime to show up and fight you in court, but he must respond to your written declaration on his own time. And if you don't like the outcome, you can still request a regular trial.

"I really don't want a cop to get paid for fighting me," he said.

We digressed into the intricacies of several students' red-light camera tickets.

"You probably could have fought that ticket and won," he told one student.

"If I get another ticket, I'm coming to you," Torres said.

The teacher told us about a horrendous ticket a mother got for letting her kids relieve themselves on a bush in a national park — "federal land," the teacher explained. This led to his pantomime of how to use various products with names like GottaGo and The Travel John.

"They make great stocking stuffers," he said.

They don't show films anymore like "Red Asphalt" — "the motorcyclist is literally cut in half, half on one side, and half on the other," our teacher said — although Letzer, the student with a surfeit of tickets, had seen the film several years before at Simi Valley High School.

Instead, we watched professionally produced videos with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Chad Everett illustrating the hazards of driving while drunk and while texting. The best film showed that driving on too little sleep is as debilitating as getting behind the wheel after drinking. Our teacher threw in little enlightening asides: The most dangerous thing on the road is a flying mud flap, he said.

We filled out a written driving test in class, and got to keep it.

"You can make an airplane out of it," our instructor said.

Our instructor agreed with us that the skyrocketing cost of tickets in Los Angeles — $400, $500 and $700 — was ridiculous. "One of my students had $8,000 in tickets," he said. I suspect that's why people are skipping traffic school. They look at the outrageous fines and just throw up their hands; traffic school may be cheaper, but not by enough.

I'll say this for our instructor: He kept us awake and entertained, all the way through to the quiz at the end. Torres and I agreed we'd learned a lot. I took one look at the blood alcohol content weight chart and decided no driving on New Year's Eve. I'm going to take sleeplessness on the road more seriously.

But the class took seven hours off my life and, with court fees, cost $350. Isn't this whole traffic school thing a racket? I asked our teacher.

But he had another term: "Organized torture," he said. "They couldn't give you jail time so they gave you this."

gale.holland@latimes.com

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