Our Laguna: Learning some stats in traffic school

While everyone else in Laguna was bathing in sunshine Sunday, I spent eight hours in a windowless room doing penance for getting my first moving violation.

In order to have the violation expunged from a heretofore pristine driving record, I was attending the Comedy Traffic School.

It wasn't funny.

Traffic school is one of the options offered if a driver gets a moving violation. You can fight the ticket in court, pay the fine or pay the fine and go to traffic school.

Going to court was out of the question. I was soooo guilty.

On April 1, I was parked on South Coast Highway in front of Cobblers Corner where I had just picked up a pair of shoes that had been re-heeled, after which I was going downtown to do some shopping. Before I pulled out, I checked the Thalia Street traffic signal, which had a red light, stopping cars headed my way. With no cars oncoming, I made a left hand turn onto Anita Street, proving it was indeed April Fool's Day.

The intersection was clearly posted for no left turns, and two motorcycle officers were parked on Anita.

Stop laughing.

I must say the officers were probably as surprised by my turn as I was by being pulled over. I simply had not seen the signs.

It was my first moving violation and in my ignorance, I asked the officer if I could just pop into the police station and pay the ticket.

No, I was told. You have to wait for notification from the court — in my case Harbor Justice Center.

My insurance broker, a family member, said just paying the ticket probably wouldn't have a major impact on my premiums UNLESS, and that was big UNLESS, I got another ticket within 18 months. Two tickets within 18 months means you can't go to traffic school without a judge's permission and the hours are extended to 12 or even 16.

I am a world-class procrastinator so before I had a chance to put it off, I called for a reservation. The Comedy School advertised a class in Laguna Beach, but no classes were available within the time frame the court had given me, so I settled for Laguna Hills.

For some reason, traffic "fees" are increased if you go to traffic school, and that doesn't include the cost of the class, in my case, $36, exact change.

One man in my class grumbled that it used to be less expensive if you opted for the class. He should know. I overheard him tell a classmate that he goes to class every time he gets a ticket to keep his record clean, which was important because he is a driver in a school district.

Another man said he remembered when tickets cost nothing if you went to the school.

One woman said tickets are so high because cities need the money, but actually the state keeps 85% of the fees, according to the class teacher, Yolanda Choo.

The court allows 90 days after the fee is due to attend a class and provides a list of 27 companies that offer classes in Orange County and a list of 83 online schools — and anyone who knows me at all knows I was not going there.

Choo was a stickler for making sure we did the time for the crime. One young man, who had been tardy coming back from the morning break, also returned from lunch about 21 minutes late and he was ousted from the class. Choo said 20 minutes was the maximum allowed.

She did give him credit for the first four hours.

Interestingly, he was one of the three in the class of 36 who appeared to be in their teens. The majority were middle-aged to elderly women, the rest middle-aged to elderly men.

By the way, don't think about getting someone to take the class for you. It's a felony. Photo identification is compared to the information on the court papers to ensure the right person is taking the class.

Choo also told the class there could be no playing with iPods, cell phones or body parts in the class. And rude or distracting behavior — in other words being a "jerk" — was grounds for dismissal.

She reeled off some scary statistics: California has the highest number of traffic fatalities and drivers can expect to be involved in six collisions in their lifetime.

At my age, I will have to crowd five collisions into the next few years to meet expectations, but I think — hope — I will fail.

Attorney and judges are the worst drivers, Choo said, with financial professionals coming in second. The most common violation is speeding. Next is going through a red light, which can be caught on camera.

The gentleman who takes classes to keep his record clean said it wasn't fair to put cameras on freeways.

"No one drives 65 miles an hour," he said.

Well, isn't that the point of the cameras?

However, Choo said that some communities are taking the cameras off their streets because they were not getting a good return on their investment. The Laguna Beach City Council voted against the installation of cameras when it was proposed.

Councilwoman Jane Egly, an attorney, said it smacked too much of "Big Brother."

DUIs, driving while under the influence, draw some of the stiffest fines, and starting in 2012, judges will be able to revoke a driver's license for 10 years if someone is caught driving impaired three or more times in a decade, Choo said.

One woman in the class argued that checkpoints are not in the Constitution. However, neither is driving, which by law is a privilege, not a right, Choo said.

And you pay for the privilege. It's called insurance, a minimum of $35,000 in California to cover liability in case you damage someone else or their property. Most states are higher and there is legislation in the works to double it here, Choo said.

While penalties for DUIs can be harsh, some say not harsh enough, one of the priciest fines is for parking in a space marked for the disabled: $976 for a first offense, doubled for the second violation.

Besides scary stats and ways to avoid accidents, most of which are in intersections, Choo said, the class was shown several short films, none of them as gory as I had been warned they would be. The first one was a classic Disney cartoon, called "Motor Mania," which featured Goofy as a mild-manned, kindly man, until he got behind the wheel of a vehicle, when he became a monster.

I thought road rage was a fairly recent development, but the cartoon was made in 1941.

Choo said if involved with an irate driver, do not make eye contact and try to put some distance between you, even it means getting off the road. If followed and you know the area, head for the nearest police station or at least a very public area.

A few years ago, Laguna resident Loren J. Chadwick was shot on Broadway after engaging in a confrontation with a driver on Laguna Canyon Road. The other driver, Joe Dzevad Dakaj, dropped the gun in some bushes and went to the now defunct Aegean Café with friends to celebrate his birthday, apparently unaware his fleeing victim had been fatally injured. Police were able to track down the killer and put him jail.

Getting the last word is tempting, but it isn't smart, Choo said.

But then, making an illegal left turn in front in front of a couple of cops isn't either, but at least it is less likely to be lethal.

BARBARA DIAMOND can be reached at (949) 302-1469 or coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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