I probably knew better. I definitely know better now. When traveling in Virginia (or anywhere, really, but mostly Virginia), watch your speed. If you do not, they will, and they flash all kinds of blue lights to give you personal recognition.
I know that perhaps my reading of “Speed Limit” as “Minimum Speed” is not universally accepted. Well, to clarify, I believe it is accepted by many of us, except folks like my siblings, old men in hats (ballcaps are exempt), and law enforcement officers on duty.
I got my traffic ticket while driving at the speed of traffic (which was obviously not the speed on the signs) on a Virginia highway, I didn’t argue. Five law enforcement cars were pulling people on that half-mile stretch that Saturday morning, as you passed around a slight bend that prevented you from seeing them. They pulled me and four other cars around me. Those of you who flew by laughing, as you escaped consequences? I don’t blame you. I’m admittedly jealous.
I was late to meet a friend. No one's fault but my own. I was, indeed, speeding, even though others were flying by me as I stayed with the bulk of the traffic. Still, I was guilty. It was a time in my life when this was just one more annoyance on a stack of greater trials. I probably gave an eye-roll when the officer’s back was turned.
I found out that I could avoid points on my car insurance by attending traffic school. I didn’t like the idea of sitting in class all day. I’m not very good at that. Never was. The thought filled me with dread. But not wanting to have that increased cost of auto insurance when out of a job, I certainly would do it.
I was talking to a friend about how much I was dreading it and she said, “You know, I had to go to one recently and it was actually fun.”
She’d never lied to me before, but still, I didn’t believe her. How could going to traffic school be fun? But she gave it to me straight. If anything, she undersold the experience.
The Rules Are Squishy
On the day of traffic school, I left home two hours before the start of class to get there on time. It was about an hour away from my home, and materials I received prior said if I was late I would not be admitted. Other than with speed limits, I am a rule follower, so I made sure I would not be late. I found out that bit about not being admitted was not even remotely accurate, but you never know. The adherence to the rule could be different with any class, any instructor.
I got there about an hour early (that may indicate too much innate anxiety), sat in my car and listened to a podcast, and about 15 minutes before class made my way into the building. I should make it clear that this class was held right before the coronavirus took many things online. Probably today I could do it by Zoom. My timing isn't always great.
I stood in line to sign in, wondered why people hadn’t read the materials telling them what they needed to bring (why didn’t it occur to them they may need their license, for example?), and finally was pointed in the direction of the classroom.
I found my seat in the middle of the almost-empty room and waited. And waited. And waited.
The teacher finally came in, introduced himself, said “People are sometimes late due to traffic, so we’ll give them a few minutes.” Ironic, but I guess they didn’t want to encourage people to speed to traffic school. He left again for a while. I kicked myself for not bringing my Kindle.
I had envisioned a day full of reviewing traffic laws, the idea of which filled me with weariness. I knew the laws, had just broken one. It wasn't from lack of understanding.
Turns out I was very wrong. The goal of traffic school, it seems, is to get you to repent for your gross transgressions. Anything can happen, though, when you put a bunch of lawbreakers in a room together and make them talk about it.
The Morning Session — What Did You Do Wrong?
The first few hours were spent going around the room hearing the circumstances as to why each of us was there. As folks told their stories I realized about 2/3 of us got our tickets in Virginia. The class was in Charlotte, NC. (I’m glad North Carolina got my traffic school money.)
One of the first people to speak was a woman who told her sad story of having to get to West Virginia due to the impending death of a family member. They traveled through Virginia, which is where she got her ticket, at about four o’clock in the morning.
Your heart went out to the lady. Her mind must have been on this dying loved one. It seemed almost unfair. Couldn’t they give her a break? (More on this woman later.)
I shared a table with a guy who had moved here, gone to get his NC license, and found he had charges stemming from missing a court date due to a traffic ticket he received at age 18. He was in his mid-30s. The ticket was in California. He had gotten the ticket a few weeks before moving to Denver with his family. He had paid it and thus thought all had been resolved. He moved and got his Colorado license without issue. He’d had no issues in all the years he lived there.
Now about 20 years later he was blocked from getting his license after moving to North Carolina. He still didn’t know why there was a court date after he paid the ticket, and why his family’s change of address didn’t get notice of it to him, but he was a laid back guy and after a few hours of phone conversations just accepted these things happened and decided he didn’t have to understand. California said they would remove it from his record after he attended traffic school and paid a few additional fees.
I am sorry he had the experience but truly was happy he was there and sitting next to me. He was a perfect sarcasm match for me, and we made comments and traded “did they really just say that?” looks all day long, followed by bursts of laughter.
My favorite story came from a back row guy, who (let’s just say) was mighty relaxed, even in this class. As an aside, pot is not legal in NC, nor is driving under the influence.
He said when he got his ticket it was in the middle of the night in Charlotte. He was headed home from a night out and saw blue lights in his rearview. He tried to get off the next exit, hoping it wasn’t him they were after, but it was. He pulled over and accepted his ticket.
“How did you feel about it?” asked the instructor.
“Happy,” he said.
“Yeah, I thought they were pulling me for smoking.”
His delivery was perfect. I may have yelped I was laughing so hard. He looked in my direction almost every time he answered a question after that. He had his audience.
The Cost of the Crime
One of the questions the instructor asked was to add up how much money our tickets cost us, including lawyers, court costs, missed work, traffic school, and all the rest. Once again we went around the room and everyone was asked how much money they had spent as a result of the ticket.
I listened with interest. I had hired a lawyer, to my personal annoyance, because driving up to Virginia to go to court seemed like a stupid thing to do. Plus I found one who charged a reasonable fee and I had just wanted to move on. The cost of hiring him, the ticket, and the traffic school were my only costs.
I would have thought that all of us would have costs in the same ballpark. This session proved to be uplifting. At least to me. Only one or two people paid less than me in total costs, and they didn’t have to pay lawyers. I felt like a winner.
I had spent time online trying to find a cheap lawyer in Virginia who did a lot of these cases and I found one. He was arrogant and obnoxious and I felt like slapping him every time I had a conversation with him. But he called me back within the hour of me sending him an email (at the last minute, due to my procrastination, and at night). He knew what he was doing, did the job at a great price, and had the process streamlined so it wasn’t a major hardship. I can’t complain about him at all.
In retrospect, he was exactly what I needed. Traffic school confirmed that. A small boost to my self-esteem.
Oh, and the back-row guy who had been happy to avoid driving while intoxicated? He couldn’t come up with the exact cost. His lawyer combined work with some other charges he had pending, so he didn’t know the amount of this one ticket right off the cuff.
The afternoon session was spent with the instructor going over our stories again and trying to get us to admit the error of our ways. The goal was for us to acknowledge the potential danger our transgressions could have caused.
When it was my turn the instructor tried to bring me to repentance.
“You were alone in the car when you got your ticket, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Suppose you had loved ones with you in the car. How would you have handled the situation differently?”
I had to be truthful.
“I wouldn’t have handled it any differently.”
“Even if you were risking the lives of those people, too?”
“I don’t feel I was risking anyone’s life,” I said.
Here was my thought, or some would say justification. I was driving with traffic on a highway that is mostly straight and in good condition. The weather was perfect. If I had driven slower I would have been more at risk of an accident because other drivers would have been passing me constantly or driving into my back-end because I wasn’t keeping pace.
The long-suffering instructor tried a few more times, re-wording the question, but I wouldn’t budge. I didn’t believe I was a hazard. I know I broke the law and was willing to accept the consequences, but the only reason I had regrets was that I had received the ticket. I did not feel that at any time I was a risk to myself or other drivers.
The instructor finally moved on, exasperated. The class was on my side. No surprise there. The guy next to me gave me a grin that looked like a high-five.
But when the instructor went back to the woman who had said she had a family member dying, she simply said she guessed she should not have been speeding at that hour of the morning, but she had wanted to get to her destination.
“And you wanted to see your family member who was dying,” the instructor prompted.
“What family member dying?” she asked.
“You said a family member was dying that night you got your ticket?”
“I did?” she said.
The class all nodded.
“Oh,” she said, “No. No one was dying. I thought you were a narc then and I haven’t been to court yet, but when that guy said he was high when he got his ticket and nothing happened to him, I figured we could just tell the truth here. We were tired and wanted to get there and I was just speeding.”
I suspect the instructor drank heavily that night.
As for me, there are few times I have laughed as hard as my day in traffic school. I haven't touched on all of the great stories told that day. A good time was had by most. There was humor in almost every story told, and humanity in most of the rest. The instructor did his best to reform us. In some ways he was successful.
Be safe and obey traffic laws, but when you don’t, traffic school may not be as bad as you think.