Sandy Brown, MD


March 16, 2010

On my way to the office the other day, I was surprised to find that I was being tailgated by a California Highway Patrol officer. I stopped at the curb, wondering whether one of my turn signals or brake lights was out. I knew I hadn't been driving erratically or speeding. "I pulled you over," the officer said, "because you weren't wearing your seatbelt." Now that was embarrassing, since I'm always admonishing my patients for not wearing their seatbelts. I had no excuse. At first, I thought of trying to weasel out of it by dropping some names of patients who were also in the California Highway Patrol, or saying that he looked familiar and asking whether I had ever seen him at one of my Search and Rescue meetings or when I worked in the ER. I even thought of telling him it was a rare oversight and asking if he could give me a break this time. In the end, I said nothing and took my ticket like it was bad-tasting medicine that was good for you.

My concern, besides the $128 penalty, was that it would count as a point on my driver's license. Mamie, my insurance representative, told me that I would have to go to traffic school to expunge it. "Can I do that online?" I asked. "Sure," she said. "Just search for 'traffic schools'; you'll find plenty of sites."

Mamie was right; there were dozens of traffic schools. In the end, I chose the school that promised to be the least expensive, paid a $28.95 credit card fee, and sat down for an afternoon of driving rules and regulations and test-taking.

It was edifying to learn that on cold, icy days, bridges and overpasses freeze first; that driving through puddles can lead to reduced braking ability; and that it's good to carry a sign that says "Sorry" so that you can flash it when you're in the wrong to avoid being killed by road rage (apologizing apparently works in these situations). Embedded in the various sections of the test book were such statements as, "The state of Maine has 62 lighthouses," "A broken clock is correct twice a day," and "The famous poet, John Keats, was known to his friends as 'Junkets.'" I initially thought these tidbits were there for comic relief, but when half of the examination included questions about the size of the world's largest jellyfish, the weight of the world's largest silver nugget, and in which ballpark a fly ball travels the farthest, I realized they were there to make sure that you read all the material and didn't just skip to the test section. I barely passed. Had I known the 2 colors that honeybees prefer and that 50% of landfill area in the United States is taken up by discarded packaging, it wouldn't have been that close.

I was notified by email that my certificate would be sent electronically to the court and that I would receive a confirmation within 24 hours. Sure enough, the next day I did get a message, but it said "Certificate rejected. This is to inform you that the Court is in receipt of your traffic school completion but is unable to accept it. Ticket BP 57326 is for a seatbelt infraction, which is not a moving violation." An irate call to my insurance agent's voicemail resulted in Mamie apologizing to me by email: "I am very sorry for not doing further research on this topic before advising you to take traffic school." "Apology accepted," I wrote back. "Maybe I'll tell my patients that if they get stopped for not wearing a seatbelt, they'll face a stiff fine and have to spend an afternoon in traffic school, and then they'll wear theirs. Passenger safety reasons don't seem to work with most of them. It's funny how it sometimes takes fines, possible citations, and points against our driving record to make us do the right thing. By the way, did you know that when young abalone feed on red seaweed, their shells turn red?"