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Online traffic schools put offenders on easystreet

San Diego Union Tribune | July 18, 2000

Of all the irritations drivers encounter on San Diego's crowded roadways getting stuck behind a caravan of motor homes or crawling along as looky-loos gawk at a collision on the other side of the freewayfew are more maddening than being nabbed for speeding when everyone else was going faster.

Few, that is, except the penalty: a fine as big as a car payment and traffic violator school, the scofflaw's equivalent of hard time. But, courtesy of the Internet, some speedsters and red-light runners are getting off easy.

For these folks, traffic school is not eight hours of warming a wooden, straight-backed chair on a sunny Saturday as a wannabe comedian spews highway death statistics.

Their penance consists of sitting in front of a computer, in the comfort of their own home, answering driving questions in their spare time. Probably the toughest part is logging on.

In a few hours they are the graduates of online traffic school, an achievement that keeps their minor moving violations from being reported to insurers.

"What a joke," said Cheryl Reidy, who attended online traffic school six months ago, after she got ticketed in Mira Mesa for failing to make a complete stop before turning right on red.

Reidy breezed through the On-Line Traffic School in four hourshalf the time a classroom-based traffic school would have requiredby jumping directly to the quiz. Even if she didn't know an answer, through trial-and-error, she eventually would get it right. Reidy loved the convenience of taking the $34 class at home. But, like many of the 250,000 Californians a year who take traffic school classes on the Internet, Reidy admitted, "I learned absolutely nothing."

Critics of online schools point to experiences like Reidy'sand hers is typical of Internet traffic school studentsas one of the reasons why they think the Web-based courses should be regulated by the state, if not eliminated altogether.

The critics, mostly classroom-based schools and a few judges around the state, say the online curriculums are inferior and are ripe for cheating.

But operators of the two dozen or more online schools in California say the classroom lessons aren't necessarily any better.

"I've gone to traffic school and had to sit there and listen to a complete idiot tell jokes for eight hours," said Rick Hernandez, president of Ticket Erasers, an online school based in Vista. "I don't think in two years we've had an unhappy customer," he said. "They're just thrilled to death they don't have to spend a Saturday sitting in a classroom. And one thing is for sure. People are walking away from this online course with more knowledge than if they had walked out of a classroom."

Just last month, online schools escaped state legislation, which many saw as an attempt to put them out of business.

State Assemblyman Tom Calderon, D-Montebello, who had introduced legislation that would have regulated the online schools so strictly that some people thought it would kill the industry, unexpectedly dropped the bill just before it came up for committee review. His office refuses to talk about the bill, or why he pulled it. The close call, however, has prompted some online traffic schools to revise their acts.

They're beefing up lessons, adding new ways to verify who's actually taking their courses and installing technology that prevents students from completing the lessons in less than six hours.

One of the largest Internet classes, Traffic School Online based in Santa Rosa, is even urging courts throughout California to require that final exams be taken at 24-hour Kinko's copy stores, where students' identifications can be checked.

The measures aren't being done in all schools and they aren't enough to silence critics.

Bob Agerbeek doesn't mince words. "They're a scam," he said. He's a former police officer who teaches in a classroom setting at the ATC Traffic School in Clairemont.

"There's really no regulation at all."

The state Department of Motor Vehicles, which reviews and authorizes the classroom courses, doesn't sanction the online schools. Instead, individual courts decide whether they'll allow online study and, if so, which courses they'll accept. Thirty-two of California's 58 counties allow Internet traffic school.

The DMV doesn't authorize the online classes, according to spokesman Evan Nossoff, because there's no way to sufficiently verify if someone taking an online course is who he or she is supposed to be. In Agerbeek's classroom, for instance, students show their IDs. But in the online world, "Who knows if the person who got the ticket is taking the course?" Agerbeek asked. "It could be that person's husband who's taking it for them."

Hernandez of Ticket Erasers said it's unlikely that anyone, even a spouse, is so generous that he or she would spend hours taking a traffic class for someone else.

Even so, he and other online traffic school operators recognize the potential for fraud.

Some traffic schools randomly ask personal questions, such as "What's your birthday?" to authenticate a test-taker's identity. Ticket Erasers is using public databases to verify its students' addresses.

Most online schools would like to see the state, not county courts, start to regulate their industry, as long as the regulations don't go as far as Calderon's ill-fated bill.

Hernandez of Ticket Erasers would like to see online schools admitted in all of the state's counties. He'd also like their curriculums to be required to adhere to certain standards. "The fact that nobody, other than the courts, is monitoring online schools in California means you have a lot of cheesy courses," he said. "You have really no safeguards against cheating." Educational tool

Other states are far stricter than California. In Florida, online schools must use technology that prevents students from clicking through the course in less than four hours. And in Virginia, which began allowing online traffic school last month, students must take their exams under the supervision of clerks at Kinko's.

At San Diego Superior Court, a third of the 87,600 violators who appear in the Kearny Mesa courtroom opt for online traffic school or some other type of home study course.

The San Diego courts, like others around the state, rely on the California Traffic Safety Institute to review the online schools. Jan Nichols, the institute's curriculum expert, said the Web, in general, "is a great educational tool."

"But," she said, "I think they're going to have to continue to refine the courses so they have a few more checks and balances." She has reviewed courses that range from the extremely creative to ones where "I find it hard to be polite and not say, 'This is a mess. Start over.' "

Among Nichols' pet peeves: use of the word "accident." She thinks it implies that no one was responsible. Instead, she asks schools to use "collision" or "crash."

In the last two months, Nichols has received half a dozen or so courses that seem to have come from the same mold. They allincorrectlyadvise drivers to brace themselves by holding onto the steering wheel during a side crash instead of relying on their seat belts.

"I'd love to tell whoever is selling this, 'You're selling bad curriculum,' " Nichols said.

Not every online class, of course, is unchallenging. Or even deadly dull. But, truth is, many are.

"Online is boring," said Carol J. Bonomo of San Marcos. "They just put the manual up on the screen and you go, click, click, click." Even so, for most students, the convenience outweighs any drawbacks, to the point that they're reluctant to utter one bad word about them out of fear the Internet schools will be snatched away.

"I almost don't want to let the cat out of the bag," admitted Frank Stipati of Clairemont, who said he zipped through Web Traffic School's course in 45 minutes.

Yet, he couldn't help but gloat about his online success. "I e-mailed all of my friends and family about it. It's the best thing."

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