A lesson well learned: No joke

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A little over a month ago I was driving east along Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, a little too fast. I hadn’t realized I was going too fast, but a nice young Tempe police officer went to the trouble to point it out to me, even though this meant following me on his motorcycle, using the flashing lights mounted on the vehicle to get my attention, and then, when I pulled over to the side of the road, dismounting and coming up to the side of my truck.

He told me that I was doing 46, which under normal circumstances might not be an outrageous speed on Rio Salado. But that stretch of the road was (and is) under construction, and the posted speed limit was 25.

People—like me, for instance—hadn’t been paying attention to this, and so the Tempe PD was, as he almost apologetically put it, “doing some enforcement.”

Those who ride with me regularly will attest that, whatever poor driving habits I may have, excessive speed is not usually among them. Indeed, twice in my life—once in Virginia, once here in Arizona—I have been pulled over by cops for going too slowly.

So this Rio Salado citation was sort of funny. Or, rather, it would have been sort of funny had the fine not been upwards of $200.

At one point in the conversation, this (again:) nice young Tempe motorcycle officer pointed out that he had charged me at the regular fine rate, not at the speeding-in-a-construction-zone rate, which would have been double or something.

Greatly appreciated. He also pointed out that if I hadn’t had a speeding ticket in the officially prescribed time period, I was eligible to go to defensive driving school rather than pay the fine or go to court.

Terrific, I thought. I hadn’t had a speeding ticket in well over 10 years, and—as the nice young Tempe motorcycle cop further pointed out—it’s now possible to take those courses online.

So I looked online (azdrive.com) at the list of certified remedial driving schools.

It was quite a dizzying array, which included such august institutions of learning as Easy Peasy Defensive Driving, Super Fly Defensive Driving and Slow Your Pony. I was perhaps most tempted by Sir Waldorf Bentley’s School for Naughty Drivers, because the school’s mascot—Sir Waldorf himself, I presume—was a cute puppy in a suit of armor, holding up a big oaken shield which read “ARIZONA SUPREME COURT APPROVED.”

In the end, however, I opted for Comedy Traffic School, by Improv. Not only has the venerable comedy club chain’s traffic school been lauded as the best in the business by voluminous testimonials and media coverage—just ask them—I also felt some personal allegiance, as I worked as an in-house publicist for the Tempe Improv for a little over a year in 2001 and 2002.

Comedy driving schools originated in California (surprise, surprise) some 30 years ago as a way to make the classes less of a drag for students, and for struggling comics to make a few bucks and hone their material by day.

As a staunch believer in law and order, I feel duty-bound to disapprove of this mollycodling. But as I guy who got a ticket, I heartily approve of this progressive approach.

Improv got into the traffic school act early on. As far as I could tell, however, the Improv no longer offers live classes, at least not here in Arizona; it’s all done online now. So I enrolled, and started the lengthy process one night after midnight.

The class lasts four hours—by law, it has to last four hours. This is where the comedy content comes into play. A person of normal intelligence could easily read through each lesson and correctly answer the quiz questions on traffic signs and road rage and impaired driving and so on in a matter of minutes, and most people could probably complete the whole class in less than an hour.

But you aren’t permitted to move on to the next lesson until enough time has passed to ensure that the whole class has eaten up four hours.

So, to pass the time until you can move on, each lesson includes embedded comedy videos. Some of these are of comedian Steve Verret, one of the luminaries of the traffic-school world, going over the class materials, with funny embellishments about his small-town Louisiana background. Other videos are just for fun—stand-ups like Brian Regan and Jim Breuer (both of whom I drove around to various media appearances during my tenure at the Tempe Improv) doing riffs on cars and driving, or a Saturday Night Live sketch set at a traffic school featuring Kristen Wiig’s obsessive one-upper Penelope.

The levity of tone is a little jarring at first—“During a head-on collision, it is vital to protect your face (especially if you’re really good-looking)”—and I was pretty bleary-eyed by the time I finished, after 4 a.m.

But I have to admit, the class was pretty funny. Or, rather, it would have been funny if, after tuition and “diversion fees,” it hadn’t ended up costing only about $12 less than just paying the ticket would have.

Therein lies this simple moral to the story: Don’t speed. Especially on Rio Salado Parkway.

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