Distance Learning Adding Driver's Ed, Safety Training, Planning eDMV
Northbay Business Journal | April 17, 2016
SANTA ROSA -- Online driver safety programs have taken off. But Distance Learning Company, formerly TrafficSchoolOnline.com, is staying two jumps ahead of the competition.
The online traffic school pioneer has added driver's education programs and will soon offer the voluntary safety lessons encouraged by many insurance companies and mandated by some large enterprises.
Distance Learning Company is also preparing to launch eDMV, a site that enables vehicle registration, fine payment and written driving tests.
Several significant changes have occurred since Steve Soldis founded the court-approved but highly controversial alternative to walk-in traffic schools in 1998.
For one thing, his company has grown from five family members in a spare bedroom to a staff of more than 25 employees in a 3,000 square foot office on Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa. His online traffic school is court-approved in 13 states and despite hundreds of competitors still leads the field. Distance Learning is enjoying 16 percent to 18 percent annual revenue growth.
An eight-year battle in Sacramento to get a blanket DMV sanction for distance-learning traffic schools may end soon with the passage of a bill sponsored by Assemblyman John Benoit, R-Riverside.
According to Mr. Benoit's legislative assistant Tanya Vandrick, the time has come for distance learning programs to operate under the same standards as walk-in classes, which are licensed and regulated by the DMV.
"The DMV has a new director who wants it, the industry wants it and everyone's attitude is that home study is rapidly gaining in popularity. There are still some segments being hammered out, but the main basis is unopposed. We're confident it'll pass the Assembly Transportation committee in April," said Ms. Vandrick.
"We've tried repeatedly to get that legislation passed," said Mr. Soldis. "It will save us from having to win approval from individual courts, and if the California DMV recognizes the efficacy of online traffic schools other states will be sure to follow."
Texas, Florida allow online Texas and Florida DMVs already allow and regulate distance driver safety programs. New York is on the verge of approving them.
In California, opposition from walk-in schools has been steady but decreased when the DMV stopped waiving fines if a traffic violator attends an eight-hour class. Although passing the course still results in a clean record, attendance fell off and walk-in schools began to look for shorter, more convenient alternatives.
"Now we're all on the same side," said Mr. Soldis, who formed the National Association of Driver Safety Educators to establish standards for the industry.
"A poorly designed and administered program hurts us all," he said.
Wider acceptance of online learning is also in Distance Learning Company's favor, as is rising awareness of driving problems -- such as road rage and cell phone distraction -- not currently addressed by traditional traffic schools and driver's education programs.
"There are more and more drivers, but not more roads," said Jim Hoffheimer, whose Florida-based American Institute for Public Safety licenses its state-approved curriculum to Distance Learning.
"There's a definite shift to behavior modification along with rules-of-the-road for driver safety courses."
Increasingly, auto insurance agencies are providing a discount for drivers who voluntarily pass driver safety programs, so the efficacy of distance learning and measures taken against fraud are under intense scrutiny by state legislatures and DMVs.
A study completed by the New York DMV concluded that online safety programs were just as effective as walk-in classes in reducing subsequent driving infractions.
The DMV initially was concerned that online students could complete the course material in far less than the required eight hours, so early programs deliberately slowed the presentation of material.
"But it's been shown that content and presentation are more important to learning than time spent," said Mr. Soldis.
ID verification is a major stumbling block, since insurers and lawmakers fear that wily computer buffs will figure out how to beat verification technologies and take a piece of the potential discount in exchange for passing the safety test.
Distance Learning Company was an early user of proctored final exams, taken at Kinko's and Mail Boxes Etc, but it's also developing a proprietary, patented verification technology using well-protected credit history if the participant opts not to leave home.
This year Distance Learning Company launched an online driver's ed program as an alternative to the private schools that have replaced school instruction. A logical extension of the online traffic school offering, it's already widely adapted in California and Nevada.
eDMV on the horizon? Next up is eDMV.com, a domain name the company acquired several years ago in anticipation of many state DMVs pushing services out to licensed drivers over the Internet.
"Lots of them already do it," said Mr. Soldis, "but they can't seem to get the word out. Our one-stop site will tell you which DMVs offer which services, take you there and complete the processes.
Currently the site refers visitors to online traffic school and driver's ed programs, but "we're working with DMVs across the country to be the portal for services as they come online. The next few years will see you paying fewer and fewer visits to the physical DMV," said Mr. Soldis.