Speed Traps

Driven to distraction at traffic school.

A color-blind Tucson motorcycle cop put me here, into one of life's great melting pots.

And like 50 other drivers who RSVP'd for a gathering at a freeway motel, I shouldn't be here in Traffic School.

Not really.

Along a historic section of South Sixth Avenue, cars and trucks stream out of the chute from a green light at Five Points where used-car jockey Clyde "Ugly But Honest" Wanslee remains colorful years after his death. It is a warm evening in early November.

Many drives are ensnared four and five blocks down by a pack of TPD motorcycle cops that seem like remora around sharks.

Stopped I am, though I couldn't have possibly been doing anything wrong.

The cop, a pleasant enough fellow who is both eager and happy to be writing the tickets, asks Dumb Question #1: "Do you know why I stopped ya?"

"No, sir."

"Do you know how fast you were going?" is #2, and #3 is "Do you know what the speed limit is here?"

My speeding days--when I could easily rack up a ticket a week in a 1969 AMX--were a quarter-century ago. And the last such ticket came in another period of impatience in the summer of 1982, when the Department of Public Safety didn't think I should be doing 94 through Kayenta.

Now my lack of speed drives others, including grandmothers, into road rage. They curse at me, honk at me, throw gestures at me.

The cop says his radar gun had me at better than 35 mph in a 25 zone. I concede to faster than 25, but not by that much. I do, however, lack the will and skill to lay a Cochranesque examination of the cop and the radar gun, the tuning device, the dimensions, the angles. All my friends tell me they beat their tickets. They are all smarter. One, dubbed Rocket Man by the TPD cop whose ticket failed to hold up, had a penchant for blasting down Congress Street at no less than 50 mph in his government car. The tickets would never stick.

I cave and sign. The cop says to go slow in this area because of nearby Safford Magnet School. I agree, but ask if Safford has night classes. He doesn't think that's funny.

When I look at the ticket later, I see the missed opportunity in having this cop on the stand to describe the car I was driving. Uncle Tom's Buick isn't gold in any light, but that's what the cop called it. What else can't he make out?

The next day, the cars are once again flying on South Sixth, past Roy's Arizona Pharmacy, the San Carlos Apartments, the old Carnegie Library. A lot of drivers got through unchastened, but I'm not bitter about getting stopped.

Something the cop pointed out made me agreeable: eligibility for a class that would wipe out any points this infraction would take against my license. At $85, the fee is $15 less than the fine.

But I can't get there right away. Chemotherapy and its side effects get in the way. A magistrate grudgingly agrees to an extension. From her tone, it's clear that pushing it could lead to the a first-ever capital sentence for a minor speeding ticket.

The same little complications force me to change plans with the National Traffic Safety Institute, the grandiosely named, for-profit company that has contracts with the Arizona Supreme Court and agreements with the city to conduct traffic school for outlaws like me. The NTSI has been in business for 16 years handling court-steered driving classes, defensive-driving courses for business and government, behavior-modification classes and an array of court-diversion programs for certain crimes in various states. The office here is housed in the Transamerica Building, 177 N. Church Ave., and operations are headed by Paul Hallums, a bright and even-keeled former Tucson police commander.

Hallums was a thinking cop. When he was the public information officer, he neither spinned nor spewed bullshit. He gave whatever information was available. He wasn't rude and didn't fret about talking to reporters or the public.

He went back to school for a journalism degree and for a master's in education. Those degrees have helped him with NTSI, which he joined as a part-time instructor in 1986. Around 4,000 drivers go through NTSI classes each month in Arizona, fewer than half of them in Tucson. (NTSI does not offer the at-home classes that were exposed as a fraud earlier this year.)

But a buzzsaw named Amanda won't help one bit to reschedule me into a class where there are sure to be openings--it is on a Friday following a University of Arizona basketball game. Can the instructor allow someone to fill an empty seat? No way, she insists. Extenuating circumstances? Tough.

No, she can't check a computer in her office for online registration, because it won't be turned on until another worker arrives later. Although locations and times for classes are listed on the Web site, and are essentially public information and record, Amanda won't say where classes will be over the next several days.

It's time for me to get back into the driver's seat.

It is a brisk trip down Grant Road to the Rodeway Inn at Interstate 10 to arrive well before a convenient morning class I'm not scheduled into begins. The instructor, George Lawton, a white-haired ex-cop, is armed with coffee, forms, lists and booklets. He couldn't be a nicer gentleman in these circumstances and, as I begin to count seats--more than 60--and the people in line, he says not to worry, that he'll make room.

But there was plenty anyway. A least six people are no-shows.

In the line are rich and poor, old and young, calm and annoyed. I recognize only one person, Phil Gibson, a Pima Community College honcho who knows Lawton from his days when these driver's education classes were handled by PCC.

Instructions were clear: provide driver's license, ticket and a money order--no checks--for $85.

Of the $85, NTSI keeps $24, the state Supreme Court collects $20 and City Court gets $41. Such a deal. It could be worse. In California, you pay the ticket and the driving school tuition. And here, the ticket and its information do not leave the court. Unlike in California, it is not passed on to state Motor Vehicle.

Lawton makes small talk with each person as he takes down information.

Don, a skinny white-trash kid with a Unocal T-shirt and a cap over his unwashed hair, approaches Lawton's table and announces, "I have a small problem before we start. I forgot my driver's license. I walked out without my wallet."

Lawton asks Don how he got to the motel.


Very un-Amanda, Lawton agrees that Don can have someone bring it to him.

A few more bodies sign up. Britney, a 16-year-old Oro Valley girl, has shown up without her ticket or her money order. She's been driving for less than three months and will be a target for questioning and used as an example during the session.

"I, like, left it at home," Britney says, with anxiety. "I mean it, like, takes me a half-hour to get to my house."

Lawton calms her and says she can use the lunch hour to retrieve what she needs.

Lawton also frowns, in a friendly way, at a young woman whose names don't match. One on the ticket. Another on the license. Got married, she answers. Another misstep. She should have notified Motor Vehicle. A violation that on this day is swept aside.

There's talk in the second row, behind me, about trouble calling the National Traffic Safety Institute office.

"I guess it depends on who answers," one woman says.

ABOUT 1,500 TUCSON-AREA speeders are sent through the NTSI classes here each month. It is part reality check, part behavior modification, part refresher course on driving laws, and mostly a brush-up on common sense.

Britney is here after just three months behind the wheel. One woman has been driving for 50 years and is in class as the result of her first-ever ticket. Another man has been driving nearly that long and has the same record. But yet another man who has been driving 50 years has piled up 50 tickets.

I start counting mine. The three in three weeks in March 1975; another rolling through a stop sign after a concert at Red Rocks; oh, hell, the ticket at 15 for driving a 1950 Dodge truck before I had a license.

We all could add to the list that morning. We all admitted that we "flowed" with the traffic that was going 10 to 15 mph above the speed limit. We got into turn lanes too soon--using them as passing lanes, driving past one or more intersections before our left turn came--and we all edged too far into the intersection at the lagging left turn arrow; only the first car can break the plane.

Lawton was an Air Force cop for 22 years. He brings a large load of common-sense experience to the classes. He is pleasant and folksy and given to traffic war stories. He's too hokey for the hipsters who are annoyed that they can't be on their cell phones and have to listen to his story about getting a ticket on his wedding night and having Rudy Vallee, who was performing in town, sign it. Or that he once had Cholla High, UA and San Antonio Spurs star Sean Elliot in the melting-pot classes he teaches. Lawton is the type of guy who measures Tucson by traffic: what roads where, number of lanes, curbs, improvements. The type who times stoplights: 45-second green here, 58-second red there.

Some of my classmates still want to contest their tickets.

Max, for example, thinks he should be absolved for getting a ticket in Willcox for running a stop sign early one morning. He didn't hurt anyone. There were no other cars around. And, most important, the police were sitting in a car that had no lights on.

"What's up with that?" he asked.

Lawton turns to the Unocal kid, Don, and asks, essentially, "Why are you in here?"


There's a surprise.

"I was going down Oracle and my wife said, 'You better slow down. You're speeding.' I told her, 'This is not speeding. This is speeding. That wasn't fast. This is fast.' "

The cop agreed.

Don explained, without contrition, that he has the need for speed. And that section of Oracle, coming south from Magee through Ina, Orange Grove and down to River, is, well, satisfying at fast speed.

It is a chilling admission. Don is oblivious to traffic and news. It is in that stretch--Oracle north of River--that two car punks, Jonathan Qualls and Aleksey Korovkin, raced at up to 90 mph on October 7, 1999. Nearly 58,000 cars travel this part of Oracle every day. Seventy-three-year-old George Taylor was driving one of them. He was trying to turn his car left into a business north of River Road and could not have judged how fast Qualls and Korovkin were going. Korovkin swerved and missed. Qualls smashed into Taylor, setting off an explosion and scattering shrapnel from the cars onto all six lanes of Oracle Road. Taylor was dead at the scene.

News of the prison sentences--Qualls got four years, Korovkin one--was all over the dailies and television in the days and nights before Don found himself in this traffic school.

No matter. Don, the new model for "I Can't Drive 55," is unmoved when discussion of this race crash ensues.

Most are not in this class for drag racing. One was taking her kid to day care and thinking of other things. Another was thinking not of driving but of picking up holiday lights.

Lawton uses some other topics to explain why drivers ought to simply start paying attention. No cell phones. No eating. No reading newspapers or magazines. No shaving. No makeup. No hair styling. No changing clothes. No sex.

In this course's casual nature, I wonder if it would be appropriate to share the late-1980s story about the state senator from the Tucson area who was seen driving home on I-10 while enjoying oral sex from his girlfriend.


Road rage, Lawton explains, is not confined to rough parts of town. He recounts the embarrassing incident in which a top county prosecutor--whom he doesn't name, but we will: David White--got huffy while driving home one day on the east side. He flipped off a driver who got under his skin. The man, a retired firefighter many years older than White, followed White home and cleaned his clock.

We take a break and Lawton returns after talking to National Traffic Safety Institute people and hands me some paperwork to make me legitimate.

TIME FOR MOVIES. NONE OF THESE have the gruesome crashes meant to scare young drivers and incorrigible speeders in our old high-school drivers' ed classes. Rage is portrayed by a Goofy-type character in a 1950s-style cartoon. He is mellow until he gets behind the wheel. He is hapless as a pedestrian and a hopeless demon while driving.

This is followed by video of Indy drivers Danny Sullivan, Rick Mears, Lyn St. James and even Al (not Little Al) Unser.

They all preach seat belts, which only in recent history became law in Arizona; many legislators feared required belt use would somehow infringe on Western freedoms.

"Why do I wear a seat belt?" Unser asks in his turbo twang. "To save my life. They saved my life many times."

"Every drive you take," the video concludes, "is the ride of your life."

Some of my classmates are on the brink of sleep. One woman, a lawyer, is working on briefs.

Lunchtime. Most spill out in their cars onto congested Grant Road.

We come back to learn about more mistakes we probably made during lunch: merging too soon into freeway traffic--before the break in the white line--and using the center turn lane too soon.

Lawton drops a few more names: Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, former Oro Valley Police Chief Werner Wolff and Tucson Police Chief Richard ( sounds like Lawton says "Little Ricky") Miranda. With Wolff, the former king of the speed trap, Lawton is defensive and says that Wolff had a standing offer to buy dinner to anyone his cops ticketed for less than 10 mph over the limit.

We move to the workbook for a look at Arizona statistics:

• Nearly three people are killed on Arizona roads every day.

• Booze is involved in 6.42 percent of all crashes.

• Booze is involved in 23.4 percent of all fatalities.

• Nearly 81 percent of all boozed-up drivers involved in crashes are men.

• Nearly three-quarters of all crashes occur in daylight.

The lawyer still works on the briefs.

We look at the way we drive and why; the environment, mental and physical--the distractions and condition and maintenance of our cars and trucks.

Fewer worries because of short-distance travel? A stark reminder that eight out of 10 fatalities occur within 25 miles of the dead person's home and at speeds under 40 mph.

The book turns medical, but could stand an editor. We read about alcohol's effect on organs and glands, including the "prostrate."

We talk about congested areas in Tucson. We might as well talk about the whole region, one that is overburdened by cars and well behind in plans to add lanes.

The discussion bogs down with preaching from a man who earlier complained about being ticketed for an illegal turn in a school zone on East Pima Street; he wants to get philosophical and empirical.

"All the literature shows that people still won't do what they know is safe for them," the man says. "The example is motorcycle helmets," which are not required in Arizona.

"What I'm saying is, we haven't connected."


Some are getting impatient. Lawton wants to cover more in the book. A woman, a transplant from San Jose, blurts out: "It's 3:47, by the way."

More flipping through the book. More talk about stopping distances.

"It's now 4:06," the woman from San Jose says.

Better pick up the pace to finish my workbook.

Lawton is too polite to slow down the San Jose woman. If she's in this much of a hurry here, what kind of terror is she going to be in her minivan 10 minutes from now?

"Our whole approach is they (class members) are all good drivers," Hallums says. "They just developed bad attitudes."

No doubt.

Heading home, there are a couple of bicyclists ahead risking their lives in this scandalously overbilled "Bicycle Friendly City." Lawton, not 30 minutes ago, was talking about three-foot bike lanes and new laws to give cyclists even wider clearance when passing. I slow and move to the left to give them more room. A gray-haired woman in the Taurus behind me is not happy. In the mirror I catch her growling and waving her hand. Then comes the horn.

Will NTSI accept referrals?

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