The Totalitarian World Of Driver Re-Education
June 13, 2010, 05:00 AM
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Recently, I spent eight hours attending "driving school."

Unfortunately, it wasn't Bob Bondurant's "high performance driving" school, where you can learn how to drive like James Bond.

And it had very little to do with actual driving, either.

What it did have a lot to do with was trying to impress upon the attendees how important it is to obey The Rules. Whether these rules are just or sensible didn't enter into it. Just obey. That was the lesson. Eight hours spent dutifully pretending that the entire shebang wasn't anything other than the American DMV's version of the re-education seminars for thought criminals they used to have in places like the former East Germany.

You're supposed to pretend you did something wrong; they pretend they're doing something righteous by showing you the (supposed) error of your ways.

Everyone plays patty-cake and, with luck, no one gets sent off to the gulag.

In the East German version, usually there'd be a smartly uniformed Stasi officer—and the looming threat of a long stint in a prison—for motivation. Here in the People's Republic of Virginia, the "students" had to make do with an amiable off-duty local cop—who did a better than average job of going through the motions—and maybe even believed some of the cant he robotically recited.

I was there, like most of the others, to disappear a recent "speeding" ticket.

It wasn't a big ticket (a heinous 64 mph in a 55 zone) but these days, you are a dumbo if you give the insurance company any pretext whatsoever for jacking up your premiums. A minor speeding ticket might cost you $150 up front in fines and court costs—but it is the down-the-road costs (in the form of higher insurance premiums for the next 3-5 years) I was looking to dodge. By agreeing to spend an entire Saturday (9-5) attending this session, the court would dismiss the 64 in a 55—and no record of anything would be on my DMV rap sheet.  

That's the scam. Just so long as you pay them off, they're happy.

So, there I sat—along with about 30 others—fastening my bib in preparation for a steaming, piled-high serving of…nonsense.

The first course came in the form of the instructor-cop's rhetorical question to us asking whether we "speed." Of course we do—that's why we're here. Everyone in the room admitted they speed, routinely, as a matter of course—including the cop. But the natural follow-up to that is never discussed: If everyone is speeding (cops included) then might there be something wrong with the speed laws? Most of us don't commit murder; we generally don't steal—or drive on the shoulder running down pedestrians, either. Law or no law. Yet this law almost all of us disobey every time we get behind the wheel. But instead of questioning the law, we bow our heads in shame and pretend we are guilty of something?

How? Why?

No one says anything, of course. It would be like an East German asking how come the East Germany's Erich Honecker gets to live in a big house and gets driven around in a Zil limousine while the rest of the proletariat in the worker's paradise—where everyone is "equal"—live in drafty walk-up flats with cold water only and ride around in a smelly old bus (if they're lucky).

Then the cop regales us with stories about people he has let go—including a stripper from West Virginia he pulled over late one night for doing 15 over the limit. She told him "honestly" that she had been working all night and just wanted to get home. Understandable. We have all "been there/done that" (though maybe not the stripper part of it).

Struck by her honesty, the cop lets her go with a warning. Very nice of him, right?

Now, everyone else is cooing—but I am marveling at the disconnect. On the one hand, the cop is hectoring us about the eeeeevils of speeding—telling us that it is the "number one" reason for most accidents and that it is important to obey all speed limits for that reason, etc. And yet, like most cops, he implicitly gives the lie to all this (or else, he's just corrupt—and which is worse, really?) by freely admitting that he often lets people off simply because he sympathizes with their story.

Note—not because they weren't actually driving faster than the posted limit (and thus, driving dangerously, according to the spiel). They were. He just decides to give some people—but not others—a "break." Based on nothing more than his whim.

Lesson: Even the cops know the speed limits thing is a con—else why let some people go? Do they ever let bank robbers off with just a warning if they have a good story?

When the crime is real, the rules are (usually) inflexible. But like us, when it comes to speeeeeeding, the cops have to play this stupid game. Only it's not them getting the tickets—or groveling in an attempt to avoid one.

Then came the second course of cant—served up with lots of double-talk gravy and all the fixins' ...

The cop is telling us all that it's super important and a moral imperative, even, that we give a wide berth to addled older drivers doing substantially less than the posted limit because "we'll all be old one day, too." Well, yeah—but what has that to do with safe driving? Why is it bad (and highly ticket-worthy) for a young, alert, competent driver to exceed any speed limit, anywhere—but it's ok for a fearful, past-it, probably half-blind old person to drive considerably slower than the posted limit—almost certainly creating a road hazard in the process?

No answer.

Isn't impaired or dangerous driving—regardless of the cause—the thing that ought to matter to a traffic cop, and to the law?  

No one dared make the observation, of course. Gotta play along.

Next course was a "safety" movie over 20 years old. [The Valvoline National Driving Test, 1989]It was narrated by a walking (and still alive) Christopher Reeve and featured half a dozen other now-dead celebrity pitchmen, including John Ritter and Paul Newman. It went downhill from there. The cars, for example, were all mid-late '80s vintage. So no modern anti-lock brakes. So most of the jib-jabbering about what to do in panic-stop situations was as out of date as Ocean Pacific shorts and Philip Michael Thomas.

More such movies followed—with "five minute" breaks in between that often lasted for 30-45 minutes, leaving the class to just sit and scribble, talk among themselves or just nod off to sleep.

Very much like high school. Not much educating going on; lots of wasted time.

But maybe that was the point all along.

If the hassle of being fined by the courts and crucified by your insurance company isn't enough to kill your will to live—or at least, any desire you might still have to enjoy driving—then maybe this Gulag-Archipelago-For-A-Day thing will do the trick.

Eric Peters (email him), an automotive columnist and former editorial writer for The Washington Times, is the author of Automotive Atrocities. His website is here. His next book, Road Hogs, will be published this fall.