Providence's Alternative Source!

Car talk
Welcome to traffic school, where you'll learn how to diagnose your own brain damage

We've got a lot of ground to cover today, so let's settle the question of how I wound up in traffic school. The short answer is that I neglected to get my car inspected. The slightly longer answer is that I neglected to get my car inspected for two and a half years. This resulted in four tickets, which, along with a nifty little speeding violation, resulted in the RMV sending me a letter promising to suspend my license if I didn't enroll in the National Safety Council's Defensive Driving Course, better known as traffic school, or, in some cases, traffic lockdown.

This sounded rather like extortion to me, but a good old American form of extortion -- like anger management, or community service -- and so I ponied up 90 bucks and joined 17 other surly-looking individuals on a recent Saturday morning at a truly excellent driving school, whose motto is (if I may extrapolate): We'll Clean Up at Some Point.

Our teacher, Jim, was one of those men who masks his homicidal rage at the world by trying to be friendly in a creepy, paternal way. He looked a little like Senator Bill Bradley (though he lacked Bradley's explosive charisma), and he spent the first hour of class delivering what I would loosely define as a homily, his central points being:

1) "This class is pass/fail. This means you will either pass, or fail, which is a pretty good deal, because some of us, if we brought home a C from school, we'd get the crap beaten out of us."

2) "Your license is a gift from the Registry."

3) "The way I see it, I'm not selling toothpaste here today. I'm saving a life."

Jim's chief pedagogic tool, life-saving-wise, was to suggest what would happen to us if we continued to take the Registry's gift for granted. He believed we would die, a point he emphasized by describing numerous recent auto fatalities, and supplying his own impromptu sound effects.

The class seemed, as a whole, unmoved by these sentiments. The group vibe was more along the lines of hostile subservience.

But Jim was hardly through. He ordered us to tell the class what we'd done to wind up in traffic school.

A woman named Nan confessed that she'd been driving recklessly.

"What kind of car?" Jim asked.

"Land Cruiser," Nan said.

"Well, those tip over," he observed merrily. "Yup. You go more than 40 and they flip right over on the turns. This is science I'm talking about. Oh, Nan! Nan! Do you see where I'm going?"

A young man named Russ volunteered that he'd been caught doing 112 in a 55-mph zone.

"Did you play high-school sports?" Jim said suddenly.


"And did you ever black out?"


Jim began nodding vigorously. "I thought so. Now let me tell you something, Russell. You've probably got a little brain damage. You see, when people die, often they donate their bodies to medical schools -- which is really a very nice thing to do -- and one of the things the medical students do is they cut open these people's heads. And what they've found is that the brain is surrounded by fluid, which is good, because the brain is very soft. So the fluid is like a shock absorber. But when people black out, it damages their brains and one of the effects is you lose your sense of speed and danger. Do any of you remember in high school there was one kid who was a real daredevil? He probably had brain damage, too. So Russell, think about that."

Russ seemed to want to respond to this assessment, but Jim had already moved on to Chris, who informed us that he had been caught driving 130 in a 55-mph zone -- stoned.

Jim took a few seconds to digest this news. "Well now, let me say this, and Chris, I hope you won't take offense, because this is nothing personal, but Chris here is a trained killer. He's a terrorist on the road."

After lunch, Jim had us fill out a psychological survey.

My own scores indicated that I was about one espresso away from going postal on the Thurbers Avenue curve. But Jim was more concerned about Bethany, the sleepy redhead behind me.

"Based on her scores, you'd think she was the Dalai Lama when she gets behind the wheel, wouldn't you?" Jim shook his head. "You might as well go into a hospital and prick your finger with a needle that has AIDS on it, Bethany, because you're doing the same thing when you drive with a suspended license."

I was still trying to process this remark when Jim wheeled around and locked eyes with my neighbor, Ed. "Let me ask you something," he said. "Do you know anyone with a spinal-cord injury? How about Christopher Reeve? He's a paraplegic, or whatever they're called, and that's someone who can't move anything, not even their shoulders. They have to lie in bed all day, and they get bedsores. They don't tell you about that, though, do they?"

Ed said, "I guess not."

"Alrighty then," Jim said. "Let's watch a film."

Our final task of the day was a written test. The only person in danger of flunking was an extremely friendly Brazilian man who spoke almost no English. He got eight out of 10 questions right.

"Now listen, folks," Jim said, by way of conclusion. "I know I was pretty hard on you today. But that's only because I care. I'm the kind of guy who believes in change. Every one of you has the power to change. It's in your hands, now. There's no more Jim out there on the road."

It was sort of sad to watch everyone bolt out of class, into the cold afternoon. Nobody had learned anything, really, because the whole course -- with its cheesy workbook and sober rhetoric -- was just a dopey hoop to jump through, and everyone knew it, all except Jim.

There was even a moment, as I watched him gathering up his papers, that I wanted to stop and touch his arm and explain the situation.

But then, Jim didn't strike me as the kind of guy receptive to self-knowledge. It seemed safer, all things considered, to allow him to believe that he'd empowered us to overcome our hubris, to shed our foolish ways, and even, yes, to heal our brain damage.

When he's not out driving through your neighborhood, Steve Almond can be reached at

Issue Date: November 22 - 28, 2002