Home on the Range 

Barely a month shy of my third anniversary as a licensed driver, I got my first speeding ticket. If I were 16 years old, I might view this as a badge of honor. Instead I felt very contrite. What kind of mother speeds in a school zone? Even if the blame could be placed squarely on the tiny shoulders of my two daughters in the back seat — the 4-year-old distracting me with her unanswerable questions (“Mommy, what does ‘trying’ mean?”), the baby expressing outrage at yet another dropped toy. Even if I didn’t know I was in a school zone, so technically I wasn’t going 18 over the 20 mph limit — I was doing seven under what I thought was the 45 mph limit and don’t I deserve some kind of special commendation for that?

I’ve heard stories of ladies batting their eyelashes at policemen and getting off with just a warning — but I doubt that happens often to the badly-in-need-of-highlights drivers of Cheerio-dust-covered Subarus. Then again, I’d also heard of sympathetic cops being lenient with moms when they realized what — or, more precisely, who — was causing them to flagrantly disregard the speed limit. But in my case, the caterwauling subsided as soon as the officer peered into my backseat, no doubt looking for contraband (Is possession of Cheerio dust a felony? Open containers of milk?) but finding instead a pair of
beatific children.

Despite all my excuses, I was ready to accept culpability. When the officer mentioned something about my right to contest the ticket in court, I assured him I had every intention of paying my $128 debt to society. He seemed touched by my naivete. Later that evening, my husband was less moved, informing me that our insurance premium would skyrocket if I simply paid the ticket and I’d have to take a defensive- driving course to wipe my record clean.

My options were to take the six-hour class online, rent a DVD, or go to an actual driving school. The last choice was no choice at all — I mean, if I had the opportunity to take off on my own for six whole hours, I would go see three movies. Or maybe get three pedicures or go for two runs and a bike ride or sleep in my car — the mind reels at the possibilities. So I went with the web. The Texas Education Agency lists 20 approved online courses, all of which seem interchangeable except that a few have a “sense of humor” while the majority are reminiscent of those mandatory safety assemblies in junior high — the endless slo-mo crumpling of crash-test dummies, the sonorous lectures from stone-faced state troopers, the “jaws of life” demonstration on the playground. I opted for humorless, because six hours of cheesy graphics and Ozzy Osbourne impressions seemed a far tougher endurance test than an America’s Scariest Traffic Accidents marathon.

And it was a bit scary. Previously I’d focused my driving anxiety on freeways, flash floods, and the demolition derby that is my daughter’s preschool parking lot at drop-off time. Turns out, there’s so much more for me to fret about: carjackers, tornadoes, runaway trains, live wires, road ragers … The course provided all kinds of strategies for handling these scenarios, most of which came as a total surprise to me. Like, if you excite the ire of a pickup-driving
sociopath brandishing a hammer, don’t increase his road rage by ignoring him. Make eye contact, shrug your shoulders, and smile sheepishly. Mouth the words “I’m sorry!” even if the asshole cut you off or was brazenly tailgating in a school zone.

But perhaps the most frightening thing is that I now really get the concept of defensive driving: Assume that everybody on the road — except for you — is mentally ill, legally blind, or on crack, and know that it’s your mission to anticipate and survive their potentially fatal mistakes. So much for my sunnier point-of-view, that everyone else is a better and more experienced driver than I am and thank God for that.

I imagine that seasoned drivers taking this course squirm miserably in their seats, wondering how they can weasel out of it without risking three to five years in the state pen for fraud (or was it two to 10 years? I can’t remember — that’s the only exam question I got wrong). Not me. I freely admit I had much to learn about driving my car, or as I now refer to it, my “loaded weapon.” Here’s hoping I don’t get to take advantage of the special discount offered to repeat customers. •




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