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Traffic School Goes to the Information Highway

Washington Post | July 24, 2000




Feeling comfy in his shorts and T-shirt, Roger Conrad slipped in his favorite jazz CD. As his children slept tucked in their beds, he hunched over his computer, scrolling through an Internet course on how to be a better driver, all in the middle of a peaceful night draped in the sounds of clarinets and crickets and the click of his keyboard.

Early the next morning, he drove from his Alexandria home to a Kinko's, where the iridescent lights were in full bloom, and the photocopy machines were humming. That is when he took his final exam on a Kinko's computer to prove that he had completed the course and was indeed a safer driver for his efforts.

But wait. A judge had sentenced Conrad to traffic school because of his three speeding tickets in one year. Wasn't that supposed to mean eight hours stuffed in a child-size chair, watching gory films of car accidents and having an instructor scream in your face about minding the rules of the road?

Call it home schooling for bad drivers. Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles last month became the first in the nation to allow traffic violators to take safety classes online.

Since then, about 400 of the 14,000 Virginians referred by courts to traffic school have opted for the Internet course, which is offered by a California company called TrafficSchoolOnline.com. Company officials believe the percentage of drivers choosing the online class will rise to about 10 percent within several months. Officials in California and Florida are considering approving the same class.

"You can pay traffic tickets, and you can get degrees on the Internet," said Samuel Crump, president of TrafficSchoolOnline.com in Santa Rosa, Calif. "Why not driving school? Virginia is leading the way in putting government and other services online."

Yet some in the traffic safety industry say the online course is too soft a punishment for those with serious driving issues. It can't be traffic school, they say, if you are lounging at home and reading the lessons as you would a magazine, while sipping a beer and listening to music.

In cyberspace, there is no instructor to browbeat you into feeling guilty, complains Larry Blake, 75, owner of Northern Virginia Driving School in Falls Church.

"This idea is just a disgrace," Blake said. "To teach this right, you have to be a mother, a father and one of the best damn psychologists in the country."

Blake, a longtime instructor who said he taught several presidents' children how to drive--including Richard Nixon's--said he is not worried about his business losing money to the online school. There are enough bad drivers for everyone, he said. He said he is worried instead that the classes won't have enough impact.

During a typical class at his school, Blake said, he will approach students individually and chat with them about their tickets and how it would feel to hurt someone on the road. "Do you realize that you could kill a man with your Honda?" he asks them. He also recently spent $8,000 on movies showing bloody, shattered windshields and bodies slumped over seats after car crashes.

"The Internet won't do that. It's silly and ridiculous," said Blake. "Meanwhile, the highway is scattered with blood."

Judi Stone, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said she is concerned that the online classes are too isolating.

"There are no war stories over the Internet," Stone said. "And it's kind of funny to think that some 18-year-old at Kinko's is being the final arbitrator in this. Nothing against 18-year-olds or Kinko's workers, but there are probably better ways Kinko's could contribute to highway safety."

Kinko's employees say that they don't mind administering the test and see it as just another way that the Internet is making their jobs more interesting than making copies.

All 27 Kinko's locations in Virginia and the District are participating (only for Virginia drivers). Students go to one of the 24-hour copy centers, present their driver's license and take the 30- minute final exam on a computer in the presence of a Kinko's employee. The test is similar to the one given at the traditional traffic schools.

Kinko's involvement was essential to convincing Virginia officials that there would be no cheating or illegal stand-ins, Crump said.

Pam Goheen, a Virginia DMV spokeswoman, said that state officials have faith in the Kinko's workers and that the DMV also will be monitoring to make sure there is no cheating, just as it would at any driving school. She added that the DMV already has received positive feedback on the Internet course and exam.

"The goal of the online class is simply to get people interested in the information at their own pace," she said.

The course is divided into 10 sections with titles such as "Attitudes that Kill" and "Vehicular Suicide and Murder."

Conrad said he found the course scary enough. "There was no blood, but they got the idea across," said Conrad, 38, as he relaxed after passing the test on Friday. "Everybody in Virginia speeds because the traffic is terrible, and we have no time. This is the perfect course. You can do it at your own pace."

The class costs $49.99, about the same as the dozens of in-the- flesh traffic schools. To move from one section to the next, students must score 100 on a quiz. Finishing 10 sections and 10 quizzes takes about as long as a traditional class.

But students taking the online course are allowed to spend as long as three months getting through it, while those at a conventional traffic school typically must take the class in one eight-hour block on a Saturday. That's an important difference for time-stressed Virginians, Crump said.

"I do have a very busy life," said Maria Sarahan, 44, a Richmond resident who works full-time and has a preteen and a teenager. "I did the test over several weeks. I was up at 1:30 a.m. studying for this, wearing my pajamas."

Sarahan, who received a moving violation on Mother's Day for an accident that she admits was her fault, took a regular traffic school class eight years ago after another accident--one that she says was not her fault. She learned about as much in both classes, she said.

William Swanson, 38, who opted for the Internet course after receiving a speeding ticket, said he thinks he processed the information better over the Internet than he would have sitting in the classroom.

"It did give me some time to think about how dangerous driving is," said Swanson, who lives in Norfolk and has a one-hour commute to work. "I also cherish weekends with my family, and I did this in my bed with my laptop at night."

Lorri Randolph, 28, the Kinko's manager who set up Conrad's exam, carefully checked his license and then went about her usual duties, looking over a few times to make sure things were going smoothly.

Sarahan said that Kinko's workers were too busy to watch her take her test, although they did check her identification.

When Conrad was finished with his test at the Crystal City copy store, he chatted with Randolph about how well the class and the test had gone.

"I actually worked a lot harder this way," Conrad said. "I think if I sat in a classroom, I would have just tuned the instructor out."

He said he always will remember the course's stern lessons on drinking and driving and those on speeding, his personal vice. With that, he jumped in his car and was off, a driving student schooled on the information highway.

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