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Confessions of a traffic school student in the digital age

SAN FRANCISCO — Three weekends ago, I went to traffic school. Again. It was the real kind, not the online version. There was a teacher, printed forms to fill out, a multiple choice test to take at the end.

I needed a pen.

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I’m on Facebook. I tweet. I text — not, however, while driving, which is a violation of section 23123.5 of the California Vehicle Code. I buy e-books, although not exclusively. I use opentable.com to make restaurant reservations. I watch the Google Doodles change with the seasons.

I really do live a big chunk of my life online, but I cannot imagine being punished there. Alone. Me and my laptop in the virtual corner, an electronic dunce cap on my guilty head.

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Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing, where forgiveness was predicated on human intervention. Bless me, your honor, for I have sinned. My last traffic ticket was more than 18 months ago. I didn’t come to a full stop at that red light before turning right. I am heartily sorry for having offended the Great State of California.

Or maybe I just like company, especially when I’m in trouble. I need interaction with other human beings. I want to talk, swap tales of alleged bad behavior on the 2.3 million miles of paved road that wiki.answers.com says crisscross California.

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Apparently, I’m a dying breed. At least that’s what the Department of Motor Vehicles tells me. The much-maligned agency, which regulates the schools for traffic scofflaws, tallied 294 companies statewide offering remedial instruction in brick-and-mortar classrooms in 2013. That’s down from 357 in 2011.

I had the pleasure of attending one of them, Finally a Gay Traffic School, a couple of years ago after speeding on Interstate 5 south of Yreka. And I learned a lot in that daylong session.

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Like how turning on your hazard lights when parked in a bus zone because there are no empty parking spots near the little corner market is a mistake. Not only is it illegal, but it also draws attention to your bad behavior.

This time around, Finally a Gay Traffic School was booked, so I went to Highway Blues. Unlike the first venue — whose staff, clientele and jokes were largely tailored to a particular strata of San Francisco society — this one was pretty plain wrap.

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But I learned a lot there too. Some of it was even true.

Like how you shouldn’t park in that bus zone at all, unless you have a whole lot of money to toss out the window. My instructor said the fine was $976 before court fees are added. As of January, it had been raised to $1,105, according to the state’s Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedules, but what’s $129 between friends?

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Speaking of tossing things out the window, littering while driving is against the law, and the fine is up to $1,000. But the instructor said there are two things that you can throw from a moving vehicle with impunity.

Are they A) lighted cigarettes and pacifiers, B) fast-food wrappers and the hamburgers inside them, C) chicken feathers and clear liquids or D) none of the above?

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I had to sit through 400 minutes of instruction on a beautiful Saturday to learn the answer to that one. Still, during those 400 minutes of occasionally interminable behavior modification, I got to meet people who otherwise might never have wandered into my life.

Like Sarah, the conspiracy theorist. And Ursula, an older woman with an Eastern European accent who was an eager participant in the discussion but wondered why several young men in our class never bothered to chime in.

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The explanation came during a trivia-style quiz where we tried to answer questions about obscure (to us, anyway) traffic laws: Can you legally drive barefoot in California? Yes. What’s the speed limit in an alley if there’s none posted? 15 mph. Can you drive a motorcycle between traffic lanes? You bet.

Ursula huffed, indignant, at the young men’s silence. Finally, the teacher called on a guy in the back of the cramped classroom.

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Teacher: “You, over there on the sofa. Is it legal to turn on a red arrow if you stop first?”

Scofflaw: “You talk too fast.” The other guys nodded.

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It turns out they were immigrants from Mongolia, Thailand and other countries. In about seven hours of class time, they’dbarely understood a thing.

And then there was Terry, who sounded like she knew so much about the vehicle code that she could have taught the class herself. All of her knowledge seemed to be firsthand. Much, it turns out, was of a questionable nature.

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Terry was in class this time because she had run a red light and, when pulled over, was found to be driving without a license. Apparently for five years.

“They got me,” she said, almost proudly.

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Terry knew about the hefty ticket for parking at a bus stop. She talked about DWIs and DUIs — driving while drunk and driving under the influence of other substances. A cannabis card holder, she told the class, “You’re not allowed to smoke while the vehicle is moving, but you can drive after smoking. I have ulcers.”

Was that true? The teacher didn’t say otherwise. We all left class believing it was the case.

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A quick call to the California Highway Patrol, however, cleared up the matter. “You cannot drive under the influence of anything,” said Officer Mike Harris, the CHP’s public information officer. “If you have a prescription for Vicodin, can you take a Vicodin and drive your car? No.”

There was one traffic school question that stumped Terry: If you are parallel parking, what is the maximum distance your car can legally be from the curb?

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“I think it’s 36 inches,” she said.

“No,” the teacher said. “It’s 18 inches.”

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“Well,” Terry responded, “if you don’t curb your wheels, you’ll get a ticket too. But I don’t know how much it is. I haven’t gotten that one.”

For those of you who do not live in a hilly city, curbing your car’s wheels is a necessary precaution when parallel parking. If your car is facing downhill, your wheels should be turned into the curb. If your car is facing uphill, turn them away.

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Terry also had never gotten one of those tickets for vehicular littering. At least she never fessed up to it.

By the way, the answer to the earlier pop quiz is C) Chicken feathers and clear liquids. But the chickens must be alive.

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I never would have known that without traffic school — and Officer Harris. Too bad he wasn’t in class.

maria.laganga@latimes.com


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