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VOL. 129 | NO. 20 | Thursday, January 30, 2014

Vic Fleming

Guess Who’s Coming to Drivers’ School

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I had a fender bender late last year. So, I sentenced myself to attend one of the six-hour defensive driving classes that I make teenagers go to as part of first-offender probation. I’m a traffic judge, you know.

I saunter into the classroom on a cold January morning. I wait in line with my hat pulled over my forehead. The guy at the desk takes my check and asks, “What court sentenced you?”

“I’m not court-ordered,” I mutter. He doesn’t like that. That’ll mess up a line item on the completion certificate. Or maybe I’m projecting. He gets past it. So do I. I take a seat in the back and look around. There are only a few teens, but I’m the senior member of the class by a quarter-century.

A video montage of people texting and driving and crashing plays on the screen, catchy music in the background. Taglines pop up from various businesses and celebrities. “Make your car a no-phone zone. … Take the pledge … Click it or ticket.”

“OK, folks,” the instructor begins. “If you fall asleep once, I’ll wake you.” Why does he look at me when he says that? It’s the people beside me whose heads are on the table. “If I wake you a second time, you’ll be asked to leave the class.”

Then, looking away – thank goodness, because I’m about to pinch my lips to keep from laughing – he says, “I want you to pretend the judge is in the room with us.” He does not smirk, smile, or glance in my direction. Nor does anyone else. On the strength of that, I’m convinced that I am incognito!

I proceed to relax and enjoy the ride.

I learn that you’re no longer supposed to position your hands at 10:00 and 2:00 on the wheel. The new rule, 9:00 and 3:00, is due to air bags. Which deploy at such a force that forearms over the steering wheel may snap back and cause you to punch yourself in the nose.

When someone in the back seat isn’t buckled up, there’s more to worry about than her being thrown through the windshield. Her head becomes the loose marble, or pool ball, that may easily collide with those belonging to people who are strapped in. Graphic video from the U.K. drives home the point.

I’m successfully maintaining my silence when the instructor asks a question that he’s decided each person will answer, as he circles the room: “How many more years do you want to live?”

As others begin responding – “Sixty …Seventy … Forever” – I’m tempted to bolt for the restroom. But I don’t. I think of a smart-aleck answer I’d have given as a kid (“You call this living?!”). But I suppress it. When he stops in front of me, I deadpan, “Fifty-five.” What’s he gonna do, cross-examine me?

He’s making a point: If you want a shot at living to a ripe old age, you might want to avoid eating, drinking, texting, sexting, fixing your hair and talking on cell phones while, uh, driving? And while you’re at it, avoid speeding, tailgating, napping, and going after anyone who’s crazy with road rage.

Time flies. Three o’clock is nearing when someone asks, “If four drivers stop simultaneously at a four-way stop, who has the right of way?”

The instructor doesn’t miss a beat. “The law doesn’t address this. Who goes first? The answer is … ‘Not me’.” He sees me lip-syncing the answer. And smiles.

Treat yourself to drivers’ school this year. It’s worth every buck I shelled out.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law.

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