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Speeding ticket teaches fast lesson on driving

Okay, so I'm a cautious driver. And, yes, for years, people have teased me that I would some day be cited for obstructing traffic. As other drivers whizzed by me 20 mph above the speed limit, my passengers threatened to open the car door to see if we were standing still.

Well, surprise, surprise. A week ago, after almost four decades of ticketless driving, I got my first traffic citation _ and it's for speeding. I was going 12 miles over the 20 mph limit in a small Marion County town, on my way to a church convention (honest, officer) in Ormand Beach. Who says I'm not a wild and crazy guy?

It really did happen on a dark and stormy night. Well, it was an overcast, drizzly afternoon. Either way, the weather was bad.

I was easing on my brakes as I neared the city limits, keeping a wary eye on the rusted-out jalopy hugging my bumper, its rear end bouncing and fishtailing on the slippery road. I completely missed the flashing speed zone lights at the entrance to town.

It's best to think of these kinds of things as learning experiences.

I've written enough stories about mouthy drivers going to jail for resisting arrest to know that when you're on the side of the road, the police officer is always right. I was docile and humble. The officer was polite as he scribbled $103 as my fine. "It could have been worse," he smiled.

He was right.

If either I or my passenger had not had our seat belts secured, we would have paid an additional $27. If I hadn't had my auto registration, proof of insurance or driver's license, it would have been two or three more citations. But that was all in order, so it was just the speeding ticket.

The joyous jaunt to the beach was suddenly somber. There went the money for our big night on the town. It would be pizzas in the room and a walk along the sand.

But hope springs eternal. On the back of the ticket, there appeared to be an out. If I attended a state-approved Driver Improvement Course, I would pay "a reduced penalty." Oh, boy. Maybe we could at least have Mexican food in a real restaurant and rent a video.

Not so fast.

The original ticket is $103. If I take the state-approved course, at a cost of $25, the fine will be only $108.32. Only? That's $5.32 more than if I don't take the state approved course, and that doesn't even count the $25 fee for the course.

Only the government could figure this one out. The base fine is $52, plus $4.25 for every mile over the limit ($52 + ($4.25 X 12) = $103). With the course, the $52 base fine is reduced by 18 percent. On the cost per mile, you take off 25-cents for the Wildlife Fund, divide the remainder by 2, reduce the top half of the mileage cost by 18 percent, add in the full amount for the bottom half, put the Wildlife Fund back in, tack on $19 court costs _ and voila! _ you have $108.32. Trust me, it figures.

So why bother with the driver course?

Three good reasons: no convictions on my driving record (in case I ever want to run for sheriff, I won't be a convicted criminal); no points on my driver's license (12 points and I'll be hiring a chauffeur); and, best of all, I retain my well-deserved insurance safe-driving discount.

So far, those 12 wretched miles have cost me $133.32, plus six telephone calls to the Marion County clerk of court to figure out what to do, plus a trip to the Pasco Courthouse for an affidavit swearing I'll take the Driver Improvement Course. This week, I'll spend four hours taking the course.

I console myself that the alternative may have been a rear-end crash, complete with a whiplash, $10,000 in repairs and lawsuits from my passengers.

But that's rationalization for being inattentive.

All I know now is that the next time I cruise through that little town in Marion County, the mayor himself can don his tennis shoes and beat me to the other side _ on foot.