Pizza? Music? Movies? Now you can pick your own traffic school

In Foreign Parts

Los Angeles may be a city of stark contrasts, of tremendous gulfs between rich and poor, of racial and linguistic ghettos that keep the glitterati of Hollywood far removed from the daily grind of immigrant office cleaners.

Los Angeles may be a city of stark contrasts, of tremendous gulfs between rich and poor, of racial and linguistic ghettos that keep the glitterati of Hollywood far removed from the daily grind of immigrant office cleaners.

But one experience is a great leveller, whether you live in Beverly Hills or the slums of East LA. Everyone, sooner or later, ends up going to traffic school.

That is almost inevitable. Los Angeles is not only a city where the car trumps every other form of transport, it is also crawling with posses of bored, underpaid traffic cops just waiting to pounce on some unsuspecting road-user whose infraction may be no worse than making an illegal left turn in a deserted residential area.

When the day comes that you are pulled over and ticketed - and 500,000 people in California are each year - you don't have a lot of choices.

You can elect to have a point deducted from your driving record, and pay an extra $250 a year in insurance fees for the next three years. Not a great prospect. Or else you can have the whole thing forgotten, on condition you spend eight hours locked in a room with a traffic school instructor and an assorted sprinkling of your fellow offenders. And that's what everybody does.

Traffic school has become so prevalent it has spawned a mini-industry of its own. You don't just go to any old traffic school. You get to choose between musical traffic school, stand-up comedy traffic school, pizza traffic school ("Hello, Pizza4U traffic school speaking. Would you like a slice?") and chocolate traffic school.

If you are looking for love as well as highway code guidance, there are singles' traffic schools and gay traffic schools. This being the home of the film industry, there is even a movie traffic school.

Not that it is necessarily a barrel of laughs. Having committed my own indiscretion (speeding on the freeway, if you must know), I opted for a comedy and pizza combo, which, regrettably, was neither particularly funny nor forthcoming in the pizza department - we all went out for a sandwich on the corner instead.

Our suspiciously cheery instructor attempted a song of welcome on a traffic theme, only to give up after just one verse (we were all glowering unforgivingly) and admit sheepishly: "Actually, you don't have to laugh at my jokes. Your only requirement is to stay awake."

But I did gain a few bizarre insights into the world of traffic-law enforcement in California.

The infractions of my fellow attendees were, for the most part, laughably minor; a couple of no-left-turn violations, one "California roll" (failing to come to a complete halt at a stop sign) and, perhaps the closest to a semi-serious offence, a woman who cut in front of two pedestrians while she was talking on her cell phone.

Hank, our instructor, said the average Californian driver commits up to 200 ticketable infractions an hour, not so much because the standard of driving is shoddy (although it often is) but because of the extraordinary profusion of rules in the California Vehicle Code, a tome as thick as a three-volume dictionary.

You crossed a continuous white line between lanes to ease into a turn? Citable. You flashed your lights to warn a fellow-driver his boot was open? Citable. You failed to wait for a pedestrian to walk all the way to the other side of a six-lane highway before making a right turn? Yup, citable. The Californian roadways, it turns out, are like some kind of crazy Calvinist religion. We are all in a near-perpetual state of sin, and it is the duty of the cops to remind us of the fact periodically and force us to atone by paying fines and attending traffic school.

Given the money involved (you are lucky to get away with less than $200 for the ticket and traffic school fee), the word "racket" got more than an occasional mention in my class, and even Hank was hard put to deny the financial interest involved.

Some of the legal niceties were downright surreal. For example, we learnt that legally only two things can be dropped out of a moving vehicle in California. One of them is water. And the other, don't ask why, is chicken feathers.

If you are driving in the car pool lane on the freeway - two occupants are the usual minimum - you'd better be careful who you are counting as your passenger. If you are driving a hearse and the second occupant is a corpse, you can be cited. But if you are a pregnant woman and you are counting the foetus as your number two, you might just get lucky. Judges who have heard such cases tend to split on ideological abortion-rights lines, with pro-lifers upholding the right of the unborn child to be counted as a passenger.

This being LA, Hank took us through some of the more famous celebrity infractions he knew of: Jean-Claude Van Damme's illegal U-turn on Sunset Boulevard, Jason Priestley of Beverly Hills 90210 being done for drunk driving on Laurel Canyon, and, rather earlier, Montgomery Clift's face-disfiguring accident under the influence of fatigue and alcohol.

I asked Hank if he'd ever had a celebrity attending one of his classes. He said no, he hadn't, and laughed nervously, "But you know what," he added. "If one of them came in here, I'm not sure I'd have the courage to sing."

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