Nabbed for speeding in my 1964 Newport station wagon ("I didn't think this old wreck would go that fast," the Highway Patrol officer said sarcastically as he wrote me up), I opted for traffic school.

Under California law, you can thus shield your rashness from the public record, provided there's an 18-month interval from your last citation. The class in Eureka was run by a former cop from San Diego, who divides his time between running a driving school and representing tax deadbeats before the IRS. He offered a torrent of statistics. The most dangerous time to drive: Friday evening, closely followed by Saturday night, closely followed by Sunday night. The safest day is Tuesday. The last 24-hour period in California in which no one was killed on the roads was on May 1, 1991 (which turns out to have been a Wednesday).

Then, the instructor reviewed with us the best way to comport yourself as an officer approaches your car: Keep your hands high on the wheel. In my case, I was groping under the seat for my registration, and when the itchy young officer asked me to lower the passenger window, the handle came off. The instructor plunged into a cop's eye view of what it was like to approach a car. Death could be waiting. There is no job, he told us, more perilous than that of the police officer.

I told him I didn't think the facts bore him out on this point, even though it's a widely held view, particularly promoted, for obvious reasons, by the police. Every time a cop gets shot in the line of duty, we see the equivalent of a state funeral, the rhetorical trappings of which are intended to convey that the folk in blue live lives of peculiar danger, and that each time a cop blows someone away for no good reason, we should bear in mind that his finger had sound reasons to be itchy on the trigger. But there are far more perilous jobs.

Miners and farm workers have riskier occupations. So do fishermen. In 1996, for example, there were 663,535 cops in the country, and an even 100 were killed in the line of duty, 55 feloniously, and 45 accidentally. This yields a death rate per 100,000 of 15. Of these 100 deaths, 32 came in the form of car or motorcycle crashes, constituting the largest category of police deaths. If cops walked more and drove less, they’d probably halve their death rate.

In that same year of 1997, the highest death toll by industry was of coal-mining, at a rate per 100,000 of 39.8. As an occupation, taxi-driving was more than four times riskier than police work, which was almost exactly as dangerous, in terms of homicide, as being a sales counter clerk. Of course, the stats vary a bit from year to year, but the basics remain pretty constant.

A lively publication out of Portland, Ore., called Peoples Police Report, quotes a 1997 Rap Sheet (newsletter of the Portland Police Association) as reporting that the highest number of deaths of active police is by suicide: "Police officers are (eight times) more likely to commit suicide than to be killed in a homicide, and three times more likely to commit suicide than to die in job-related accidents."

In the U.S., an average of 17 workers die each day from unsafe conditions, and around 35,000 a day are injured. Who calls them heroes? Who gets charged for their murders?

And the benefits of my traffic class? I drove home carefully, 60 miles across the mountains, mindful of one particular admonition by the instructor, later confirmed by California's Fish and Game department. If I struck a bear, tied it to the roof of my station wagon, got it home undetected, and was later tempted to sell three or more parts of its anatomy -- the gallbladder is particularly esteemed by Asians for medical reasons -- I would be liable for at least a year in prison for a felony, plus a $10,000 fine. Bear poachers, beware. ."

Alexander Cockburn is a columnist forThe Nation and author of a syndicated column, essays and books. The Times Literary Supplement called him “the most gifted polemicist now writing in English.” To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.