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No More Bribes, the Joke's on California Drivers

A former Moscow correspondent goes to a traffic school where Jay Leno-wannabes teach rules of the road

AFTER nearly a decade living abroad as a foreign correspondent, life in America has proven to be an adjustment. I've been hit with a series of culture shocks, from learning to use a credit card at a gas pump to talking with the ghostly electronic voices that seem to answer most telephones.

The other day, I got a traffic ticket. It was for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, an event so common here it is called a ''California stop.''

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As a matter of background, my experience of late with guardians of the roadways was in Russia, where I lived for 4-1/2 years. Among the many arms of the Soviet police state was the GAI, or State Automobile Inspectorate, created to control the movement of people in and out of Russia's cities and towns, as well as to enforce traffic laws.

In their wisdom, the Communist rulers of the Soviet Union put into place a marvelously efficient system in which the traffic policeman was also the judge and the collector of the fine, all at one time.

In America, as we all know, life is more complex. Officer Kaufmann, a firm but polite Menlo Park motorcycle policewoman, provided no such opportunities for efficient dispatch of my alleged offense. Instead I was offered the choice of a day in traffic school to remove the violation from my record.

Traffic schools in California are as much of an institution as surfing. They are an option once every 18 months, and though more economical than appeasing the insurance company for the next few years, traffic school is not cheap. Scofflaws must pay their ticket, a court fee, and a traffic-school charge.

Now, in my youth, traffic school consisted of boring lectures by stern policemen, punctuated by films with titles like ''Wheels of Tragedy.'' But the California Department of Motor Vehicles allows ticketholders to sift through a bewildering menu of privately run schools, ranging from culinary - ''Pizza for You'' to cost-cutter - ''Cheap School.''

I chose one of the many comedy traffic schools that promised to make the eight hours as painless as possible. A Silicon Valley mix of 25 computer programmers, engineers, Stanford students, and housewives, with a few high school miscreants thrown in, gathered on a recent Saturday morning at a Palo Alto hotel conference room for the ''Improv Comedy Traffic School.''

Dave Potorny, a stand-up comedian who for some nine years has been teaching traffic school to make ends meet between gigs, stood waiting for us. ''This is my 686th traffic school,'' the bearded comic told us. ''I'm not bragging. I'm counting.'' Mr. Potorny has assembled personal experiences and those gleaned from his classes into a 45-minute nightclub routine dubbed ''Bad Carma.''

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For much of the day, each of us recounted our tale of woe, from speeders to stop-sign rollers. Along the way, our comic instructor (who also brought his press kit along) imparted a mixture of traffic law and safety plus a few hard-earned tips on how to avoid encounters with gendarmes in the future.

We all agreed that Ed most deserved the title of ''victim of injustice.'' Double-parked in a line of cars waiting to enter a San Francisco parking garage, located unfortuitously next to a police station, Ed drifted off into a daydream. The other cars moved in, leaving Ed standing alone. He was rudely shaken out of his dreamy state by a policeman. ''He was walking by!'' said Ed. The policeman proceeded to ticket him for ''obstructing traffic.''

Others had less to offer in their defense. ''I didn't realize I was going that fast,'' said a man clocked at 85 m.p.h. in a 55 m.p.h. zone. Potorny responded: ''Hey, you know that thing on the dashboard with the numbers ... ?''

The award for class valedictorian, designated as the person who paid the highest fine, went to Nima, a dark-haired young man. He was nailed for going 120 m.p.h. on the highway, for which he offered this brief but lucid explanation: ''It was a clear night; nobody was on the road.''

''There was somebody on the road,'' shot back Potorny. ''I don't understand. Why were you driving 120?''

''It was the car,'' said Nima, ''It was a BMW.''

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