Car Guy

Clover Conditioning

A Saturday at the Court-Community Corrections Program Driver Improvement course.

By 7.17.12

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It is not enough that we break the heretic. We must make him one of us. Words to that effect, as spoken by the character O'Brien to Winston Smith in 1984. Or the off-duty cop running the Court-Community Corrections Program Driver Improvement course I attend this past Saturday. All eight hours' worth.

I played the part of a good Clover (see here for an explication of Cloverism) for an entire Saturday -- pretending to agree (obligatory) with every jot and tittle of "safety" drivel -- in order to disappear a ticket I got a few months prior. Yes, even when you carry a V1 -- the finest radar detector on the market -- you are not invincible. Sometimes, it's just not your day. And then, it's your turn. A guy in a big SUV pulled out right in front of my car, forcing me to brake hard to avoid him. Annoyed, I broke left and passed the SUV. At just that moment, Officer Stand and Deliver happened to be coming out of a nearby side street. He was perfectly positioned to see me exceed the ridiculous 35 MPH speed limit (50 yards behind me, this same stretch of road is posted 45 and of course traffic is moving closer to 50) as I maneuvered around the obese SmooVee. He painted me with his instant-on and though the V1 chirped furiously, it was already too late.

Fifteen minutes later, I had a piece of payin' paper. My first one in six years.

So, I went to court -- because it is always worth going to court. Anything less than a pristine DMV rap sheet and you run the risk of an "adjustment" by your insurance company -- no matter that you've never so much as scuffed a fender. So, fight every one. I do. And one strategy -- or at least, an end run -- is to try to get the judge to send you for a day of Clover Conditioning -- oops, "driving school" -- upon successful completion of which the ticket, and the record of it having ever been issued, goes away. You waste a day to keep the insurance company away. Or at least, keep their assaults on your wallet to a relative minimum.

So, on a perfectly fine Saturday morning at 8 o' clock sharp, I found myself among 17 penitents awaiting expiation of our sins at the Cardinal Criminal Justice Academy, room 101 (well, okay, room number three -- but you get the drift).

What do you spend the next eight hours doing? If you're among the damned, you spend it listening to a clearly bored off-duty cop go through the mantra: Speed kills. All traffic laws, no matter how absurd (such as coming to a complete stop at the top of a slick hill in winter and thereby losing your momentum and becoming stuck or – worse -- sliding backward, because there's a "stop" sign at the top of the hill) must be obeyed always and every time. All laws are necessary -- and righteous -- laws. Never exercise judgment or initiative. Just... obey.

You know the drill.

We were each given a workbook of the short bus, fill-in-the-blanks variety. The cop/instructor going over each item in agonizing -- because endless -- detail. Some of the stuff was not idiotic -- but it was idiotically obvious. Example: The following hazards are common in rural areas when driving: Curves. Tractors. Wildlife and livestock. Hills.

At a green light you may go if the way is ... (fill in the blank).

Seriously.

But the Clover Conditioning was the part that was interesting. Among the highlights: 

* Informing the class -- implicitly -- that air bags trump controlling the car: Remember the old Ten and Two hands-on-the-wheel sweet spot? For decades, student drivers were told to place their hands in those positions (coinciding with clock positions) because it was the best position for maintaining control of the car. It still is -- but you're now told to do otherwise. Eight and Four is where it's at -- because of the air bag that's in the steering wheel. If you keep 'em at Ten and Two and the bag goes off, you're more likely to end up with a broken wrist and burns (from the explosive inflator in the air bag). I had to choke down the urge to ask the cop whether it might not be, you know, safer to keep one's hands at the old Ten and Two -- and thereby decrease the odds of the airbag going off in the first place.

* The Lies: Our cop instructor told at least one outright lie. Or at the least, he was grossly misinformed. He was talking about traffic lights -- and yellow signal timing. He said: "Yellow lights are designed to give you adequate time to come to an appropriate stop." Apparently, our instructor was unaware of the fact that in numerous places all around the country where red light-running cameras have been installed, yellow intervals were reduced -- with the result being that the driver faced the Hobson's Choice of running the light and risking a ticket, or coming to an abrupt stop and risking being rear-ended by the car behind them. (See here,

for example.) Sometimes, it's safer to clear the intersection. But the fact is that "the law" -- and revenue -- often trumps safety.

That's a fact Clovers should chew over a bit.

Our cop also instructed the captives -- er, class -- that they should "answer the officer's questions fully and completely" when next they're pulled over. In other words, be sure to help the cop obtain as much evidence toward your imminent conviction as possible. Throw the Fifth Amendment in the woods. The Fourth and First are already there anyway.

In fact, you should say nothing -- nothing! -- to a cop who's pulled you over beyond the legally required minimum: Your name. And even that is not actually required. You may have to hand over ID and other paperwork. You do not have to answer his questions. Because anything you say will be used against you. A shoulder shrug, an "if you say so" -- anything noncommittal - is what you're obligation to yourself is. Our cop said nothing along those lines -- but then, we know what team he plays for.

He also said: "DMV points are not associated with insurance." I see. And gravity is not associated with falling, either.

There was also a lot of annoying -- because arbitrary and so misleading -- "statistics" and "facts" presented as the absolute truth. For example, that "hearing makes up seven percent of all driving knowledge." Really? Says who? How?

Or, that if you are traveling 55 MPH, it takes "265 feet" to come to a stop. Well, maybe. It depends on the car -- and the driver. Some cars have much better brakes than others -- and this will have a dramatic effect on stopping distances. My 1976 Trans-Am, for instance, surely requires a lot more real estate to come to a stop from 55 MPH than a new BMW M3. Logical conclusion: The M3 driver is probably safer at 55 than I am in my Trans-Am at 45. But the ticket-writers make no distinction -- and neither did our "instructor."

Also, driver reaction times vary. Senile Sam or Texting Tammy might take longer to notice stopped traffic up ahead than Alert Andy.

Which driver is more likely to wreck?

We didn't get into it, but implicit in all traffic laws is the Law of the Dumbed-Down Average. The law -- giving it the benefit of the doubt -- assumes the least-able, the marginally competent, and bases its prescriptions accordingly. This may be okay for the marginally competent -- but for the competent, it's not unlike being required never to rise higher than the sixth grade even though you're capable of graduate-level work. Alert Andy, for example, is probably less likely to cause an accident than Texting Tammy - even if Alert Andy is "speeding" and Texting Tammy isn't.

We all know this in our guts (some of us, in our heads) and it's why so much of what passes for "traffic safety enforcement" grates as much as it does. We know we weren't driving unreasonably fast. We know we just had the bad luck to drive through a speed trap (as in my case).

We wish they'd just take our money -- and spare us the Cloveronian lecture about "safety."

The selective definitions of impairment also bugged me a lot. In my state, where the legal drinking age is 21, a person can be convicted of drunk driving if they are found to have a blood alcohol (BAC) level of .02 percent. Over 21 -- and legally able to drink -- and it's .08 percent. So, the young man or woman -- old enough to "fight for our freedoms" in the military with all sorts of dangerous equipment -- who has the bad luck to roll up on a Fourth Amendment Free Zone (that is, a "sobriety checkpoint") and who blows a .02 -- an amount so small it amounts to nothing in terms of meaningful impairment -- gets a DWI on his rap sheet, with all that entails.

But the glaucoma-laden, Alzheimer's addled old coot who drives 37 in a 55 is left unmolested. After all, "we're all going to be old one day."

A cop actually said this to me.

There was much more, including a detailed explication of the DMV's points system, notable for its disproportionate punishments such as six points -- held against you for 11 years -- if you're ever caught driving faster than 80 MPH... anywhere. Even on the highway, where the speed limit is 70 -- and everyone's doing 75-80.

And then there was the absurd.

One guy -- there's one in every class -- raised his hand (again) to ask what one should do when caught behind a tractor doing 5-7 MPH on a country road with a 55 MPH limit where there is a double line and so no legal passing zone. Even if it's clearly clear for the next two miles -- no opposing traffic coming -- the cops said: Be patient. Do not pass.

Right. As if he would sit in his squad car doing 5-7 MPH in such a situation. For the next 5-7 miles, until the tractor gets where it's going.

Similarly with regard to passing cyclists. The law says you must give the cyclist two feet of space as you pass. But of course, this is not possible sometimes without also treading the dreaded double yellow. The common sense thing to do, assuming the opposing lane is free of traffic, is to give the cyclist the space and briefly -- for as long as it takes to execute the pass -- allow your left side wheels to come into contact with the sacred double yellow. It's safe -- and it's considerate. You pass the cyclist without getting dangerously close to him. And there's no conga line of frustrated, getting angry drivers stuck behind the cyclist. Except of course, this is all against the law. Better to be a good Clover and obey. Even if it's an affront to common sense.

And so it went -- for hours.

Finally, four o'clock arrived and with it, the Final Exam. A "knowledge" test of all the foregoing points -- or rather, an exercise in Repeat After Me:

Speed kills. All Laws are Good Laws. Cops are there for your safety.

Submit. Obey…

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.