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Reasonable people, but not behind wheel

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001

Agroup of us had a pretty good time one night a couple weeks ago at the Days Inn on N Dale Mabry in a room rented by the hour.

We weren't there by choice. It was traffic school, a phenomenon of our drive-by culture, a defensive driving course suggested to us when we got our tickets.

It was my first time. Honest.

I expected the worst: Four hours of stultifying preaching and instruction on traffic rules I learned in high school. So it was kind of a relief when the American Safety Institute teacher, Gordon Brainerd, a Kojak look-alike ex-cop, now a private investigator, introduced himself with, "I'm kinda rude, crude and socially unacceptable." Pause. "Those are my good points."

Then we took a break.

We were all reasonable people. A couple of well-dressed young professional women, a few auto mechanics, a business type as evidenced by his gold and chrome Rolex, two pretty young things, a pumped guy in a black T-shirt, a VW Cabrio driver I've seen around South Tampa.

But as the night wore on, and Brainerd allowed us to reveal ourselves in his sort of group therapy approach, we learned we are not reasonable behind the wheel.

We treat the driver's seat like our living room couch: reading, eating, talking on the phone, fumbling with our CD players. We drive so much we have totally forgotten what we're doing -- piloting a huge, deadly vehicle around streets slicked with oil, filled with other huge, deadly vehicles, littered with tree limbs and old mattresses and bordered with building walls and concrete barricades.

And we drive as fast as we can.

There were extremes. A gentle young motorcycle racer with the most gorgeous complexion I've ever seen was picked up at 3 a.m. on I-95.

"Mind if I ask how fast you were going?" Brainerd asked.

"178." He was trying to break 200.

At least he was prepared; he was wearing a spinal cage. He seemed as reasonable about what he'd done as the rest of us.

Another young guy says he got a ticket in Treasure Island for going 50 in a 35 mph zone. "I know I was going only 37 because I had my cruise control set at 37." Why was his cruise control set over the speed limit? Brainerd asked. Well, the driver said, he knew he was approaching a 40 mph zone.

Some of us really go out of our way to get hurt.

We don't wear our shoulder belts. "It wrinkles my blouse," said a young professional woman.

We get into head games with other drivers. Say, on the highway when someone rides right up our tail, instead of moving over into another lane, we hold fast, keep to our speed, sometimes even slow down. "Pull over," Brainerd said. We didn't like that one. Why should we? "The guy is already irrational!" If he rear-ends you, even if you don't get hurt, do you really want to stand around for a half hour with this guy waiting for the cops?

As for cell phones, studies being done by the state and insurance companies are showing that the reaction time of a cell phone talker is about the same as that of a person with a .08 blood alcohol level.

Whatever stupid things we do, it's more dangerous the faster we do them.

Brainerd, who's done traffic homicide reconstruction, gave a pretty graphic picture of what goes on inside your body in a high-speed crash. Aortic dissection was my favorite. That's the big artery that carries blood from your heart.

As we left, I commented to one of my classmates, "Geez, I'm afraid to get in my car and drive home."

"That's kind of the point of this class, isn't it?" he said.

I was so hyper-alert to other drivers, I turned onto I-275 by mistake.

It didn't make me crazy like it usually would.

I was cool.

- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.

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