Comedy traffic school: laughing to save on car insurance

Rocky Cologne stands in front of his Comedy Traffic School vehicle.

Rocky Cologne stands in front of his Comedy Traffic School vehicle.

Courtesy of Rocky Cologne

It’s Saturday school for bad drivers. More than half were here at Rocky Cologne’s Comedy Traffic Schools for speeding, three for running a red light or stop sign, one for failing to yield to a pedestrian at a crosswalk and another for making a California stop.

The eleven strangers, plus a chihuahua named Mocha, gathered in a room at the Villa Hotel in San Mateo, where the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Liberace have once stayed. The chihuahua, who belonged to one of the speeders, watched the class from her carrier bag.

An alarm went off at 9:30 am “This is when I normally wake up,” one student said, turning it off. Students declined to provide their names as to not be identified for attending traffic school.

Comedy traffic school is a popular route drivers can take when faced with a traffic violation. It follows the idea that people learn better when they’re laughing, according to a study published in the journal College Teaching. It’s as Californian as it gets, combining the state’s abundance of cars with its over-saturated entertainment industry. The cost of traffic school in California is generally between $20 and $45, though traffic violator school operators are allowed to charge any fee for their courses, according to a statement from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles received 509,694 traffic school completion certificates in 2021, a decrease of 32% from 2018. This number represents the total number of people who attended any type of traffic school, not just the ones that involve laughter. The DMV does not keep data on the specific kind of schools people attend.

There are currently 182 online traffic schools and 94 in-person traffic schools currently approved by the DMV in California. At least a handful of those have comedic.

In 2011, about 86% of drivers took traffic school in-person classrooms, according to a DMV report from 2021. In 2014, the percentage fell to 20%, with most people opting for internet courses or home study.

“It’s not as popular as it was when I first started out,” Cologne said.

A real estate fraud investigator turned comedian from New York City, Cologne decided to start his own comedy traffic school after bearing through a traditional traffic school class himself for speeding. He had tried creative outlets like painting and music but found the best success performing at a comedy club one night in Burlingame.

“The minute I heard that laughter, it was like nirvana,” he said.

Cologne opened the school in 1997 and has taught anyone and everyone, from 49er football players to assembly members and Uber drivers. He’s had drunk students and one even hold a knife up to his throat during class. Many of his students are not first-timers of his class either. Above all, he teaches the average person.

“The only difference between me and you is that you got caught,” he told his students.

Most of the class time is made up of watching Stanley Robert’s “People Behaving Badly” series from KRON4. This includes videos on road rage, distracted pedestrians and drunk drivers falling over.

“This is a video for you!” Cologne said, pointing at his student who didn’t yield to a pedestrian.

Cologne also tells the class anecdotes he had heard from his former students, including gruesome cautionary tales on the importance of wearing a seatbelt and not driving under the influence.

When he doesn’t get a laugh, Cologne jokes about it, “You guys are looking like I owe you money!”

Before the pandemic, Cologne had two other comedians help teach about 80 students each week in four different locations in the Bay Area. The pandemic forced him to cut down. He started holding class outdoors only one to two times a month.

Now, he teaches a class of about 10-15 once a week. Still, he’s looking to hold more classes and expand his school in other locations, including Sacramento.

Cologne charges $60 for his class, which students have to pay on top of their traffic ticket and other DMV fees for processing their attendance of traffic school. The non-refundable administrative fee for Sacramento County’s work to processing work costs $52. A case usually gets dismissed within a month of completing the class.

“Get a ticket, come back and see me!” Rocky said at the end of class.

Online comedy traffic school

Rocky’s Comedy Traffic Schools is one of the few traffic schools that still offer in-person classes in addition to an online course. Most traffic schools are offered remotely, such as Comedy Traffic School, which anyone in California can enroll in.

Students at Comedy Traffic School can opt to take the text, audio or video version.

“The student is already upset that they got the ticket, and they’re already upset that they just paid hundreds of dollars for that ticket. So by the time they get to us, they want something that has humor in it,” said El Segundo-based Comedy Traffic School owner Tasha Garcia. “They want something that’s lighter.”

The video option features “CHiPs” actor and police officer Erik Estrada talking through the course. The school updates the videos whenever a law is changed.

The course is eight hours of material, broken up into five sections with five multiple choice quizzes at the end of each section. Participants need to earn a 70% or higher on the final exam to pass.

Participants only pay the $19.95 fee after they pass the course. The school then submits the certificate of completion electronically to the court. The court then can take up to 30 business days to process and dismiss a case and notify the DMV.

Comedy Traffic School’s biggest selling point are the free comedy club tickets given out for completing the course. The school partners with local comedy clubs and improv shows across California.

Garcia said online traffic school was an unapped market when they first opened 10 years ago. Most traffic schools were only in person, she said.

“Someone’s always going to get a ticket. Someone’s always going to need our school,” she added.

Danelle Grier, a woman from Los Angeles, took Comedy Traffic School to avoid getting an increase in her insurance. She finished the course in 45 minutes from her couch.

“Even though the concept was kind of corny, it kept me engaged,” Grier said.

She recalled that the fee to pay the DMV was more expensive than the course.

Benefits of attending traffic school

Although drivers can usually just pay the fine and skip traffic school, the violation will stay on your driving record, which can hike up insurance rates.

Those who complete traffic school and pay their DMV fees still get a point on their driving record at the DMV, but that point remains private. The deadline to attend traffic school is generally within 60 days from paying a traffic ticket.

If you rack up four points within one year on your record, your license may get suspended for six months.

Californians cannot attend traffic school for:

  • Equipment offenses (like driving with broken headlights)

  • Non-moving offenses (like parking violations)

  • Misdemeanors (for example, driving without insurance)

  • Offenses with a mandatory court appearance (like hit-and-run tickets)

  • Alcohol or drug-related offenses

  • Offenses in a commercial vehicle (such as while driving a bus)

Drivers who attended traffic school for another ticket that they received in the past 18 months are also not eligible to go.

The origins of comedy traffic school

Comedy traffic school originated in 1985 with Ray and Linda Regan, owners of the West Coast Traffic School in San Gabriel, California. At the time, traffic schools were taught by off-duty police officers.

Among the boring classes, Regan found that students gave the highest evaluations to teachers who approached the course with humor.

The following year, the Regans opened Lettuce Amuse U and began hiring comedians to teach the class. The school ended up doubling the number of classes and expanded from San Diego to San Francisco.

Cologne said several comedians will start out teaching traffic school to help supplement their income. Although the pandemic has slowed down the business, it remains a competitive industry.

Several of Cologne’s students mentioned how other traffic schools only had an online option or wouldn’t answer the phone when they called.

Dom Magini, 43, who drove down from Folsom to take Cologne’s class last year after getting caught racing, said he’d pay even if the prices were raised.

“I’ve been to plenty of traffic schools and none of them have been funnier than this guy,” Magini said.

This story was originally published August 4, 2022 5:00 AM.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee


Leave a Comment