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Resolve that speeding ticket by taking your punishment online.

CarAndDriver.com | December 01, 2004




You get a couple of speeding tickets, you roll through a stop sign, you make a death-defying right turn on red at that intersection with the sign that reads, "No turn on red." It all adds up, and finally, we are told by a judge that if we ever want to see the left side of a dashboard again, we have to go back to school.

Driver reeducation classes differ from state to state and county to county, but whether they are taught by jackbooted troopers or out-of-work stand-up comics, they are, indisputably, not fun. They are simply the only way to avoid losing your license.

Those days are almost over. A growing number of states are approving online driver re-education courses, which can be taken from the privacy of your own laptop poolside, or lounging by the fire with your dog.

Sound too good to be true?

Believe it. The Tony Robbins of online driver education is a 39-year-old orthopedic consultant named Steve Soldis of Santa Rosa, California, who talked his way into the court system's information highway seven years ago when he got a speeding ticket on Interstate 5 while sailing down the Grapevine into Los Angeles.

"I didn't believe I couldn't take care of it online," he says now, "and I started pushing the idea to the court." That was 1997. Today, as founder and president of www.trafficschoolonline.com, Soldis is a full-time pioneer in a burgeoning Internet industry.

Who started it is a classic chicken-or-egg scenario. Craig Buck, a 52-year-old screenwriter and author from Los Angeles, created an interactive online driver education course, also in 1997.

"A writer colleague of mine, Peggy Goldman, got a ticket in Los Angeles, and she was able to download a pilot program," says Buck. "She had to fill it out by hand and fax it back, but it was still a whole lot easier than attending some school. We both thought we could make it better than that, but we never thought we were creating a whole industry."

After Buck and Goldman founded www.trafficschooltogo.com (in Texas, cooldefensivedriving.com), Buck started the Association of Online Traffic Safety Educators, the industry's first trade association. "There were seven of us at the first meeting," says Buck.

The first county to approve interactive online driver reeducation was Colusa County in northern California, in 1997, followed by San Mateo and San Diego. Within three years, counties in five states offered court-approved traffic schools via the Internet. Today, the number is 15 and growing. Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Virginia have already instituted statewide regulations.

"It's still like the Wild West in California, though," says Buck. "Every county makes its own rules, and the courts are bombarded with applications to start new traffic schools."

Along with a handful of his competitors, including Soldis, Buck formed the National Association of Driving Safety Educators. "We have an assembly bill under consideration right now," says Buck, "that will, if passed, get the California Department of Motor Vehicles to create standards for online driver education."

"Oh, it's gonna happen," says Rod Ashby of the Utah Safety Council. "All driver training is moving toward that." Utah is one of the states that recognizes certificates from programs approved by individual courts. He adds, "Driver ed has been online in the high school for a while. It was a natural to move it to the courts."

"People learn more when they choose to learn," says Soldis. "In a classroom against their will, they feel trapped and angry. Do we want bitter drivers or better drivers?"

That assumes retraining makes better drivers. Art Ericson, chief of driver services at the Delaware DMV, isn't so sure: "Some people believe that additional education results in more responsible driving behavior, but the same people continue to violate our traffic laws over and over, even though they complete mandatory courses, pay high fines, and even go to jail."

Soldis says if the courts just want to punish, they should have violators spend a Saturday picking up trash on the side of the road. "If you want to educate them," he adds, "have them get quality online training."

So the good news is that you may not have to squeeze into a fourth-grade-size school desk and watch gory movies about drunk driving and road rage anymore. Here's the good stuff:

You can take the class with a computer whenever, wherever you please. In your pajamas, if you like.

In states where you have to pay for your driver reeducation, typically $60 to $100, online courses from $20 to $35 will be cheaper.

You can start and stop your progress anywhere along the line to fit your schedule or attention span. Be sure, however, that you find out how long your court is giving you to complete the course. If you dawdle and miss the deadline, you can lose your license anyhow.

If the court allows, an online school can send the certificate of successful completion directly to the court.

Completion of an online driver safety course may qualify you for lower insurance rates.

Traditional classroom instruction is usually one eight-hour Saturday, or sometimes a Saturday and a weeknight, too. Online schools say their courses take four to eight hours, but a fast reader can finish in less time.

"The test isn't hard," says Dennis Gallagher, a graphic designer in San Francisco. "I think I spent about three and a half hours reading the material and taking all the tests. Then there was the trip to FedEx Kinko's to take the final. Most people could pass easily. It's about the same as a DMV test."

Gallagher did not want to waste time or money. "It was my first moving violation in nearly 30 years, and I didn't want to have anything affect my insurance."

The bad news is not all courts accept all online courses; it's your responsibility to find out which if any are accepted at your particular courthouse.

Furthermore, some states require you to have a good driving record to take the course online. For example, in California, you can only take the online course if your moving-violation ticket is the first you've had in 18 months. Resolving drunk-driving violations remains a sea of uncharted and usually expensive choices, none of which can be made easier online yet.

Traditional classroom courses are often pretty lax. Some folks sleep, others saunter back from lunch a half-hour late, some draw pictures and make lists to pass the time.

After the final exam in a class in Fairfield County, Connecticut, the instructor went over the questions and answers out loud. There were 16 questions. About halfway through, we asked another woman how many she got wrong, and she said, "I can tell you how many I got right." The guy at the end of the table said, "I just answered B on all of them." When we got to question No. 8, a man asked, "There were more questions on the back?" Despite that, everyone passed.

Clearly, our scores did not matter.

This is not so online. Most states require a minimum score of 80, and if you fail, it is up to the court if you're allowed to take the test over. The questions are rotated, so you're never taking the same test twice. And you can't cheat online. At www.trafficschoolonline.com and www.trafficschooltogo.com, for example, there are review questions at the end of each chapter. Miss one, and you have to go back and start over. If you click back during a test, the test questions change.

Getting somebody to take the course for you sounds like a good idea until you find out that, in an increasing number of states, you are required to take the final exam at a public test site such as an insurance company, a FedEx Kinko's, or an Internet café. The online provider sends a fax to the site with a code for your test, or there may be a proctor there to personally log you in. In either case, you have to present a picture ID.

Ericson doesn't believe reeducation in either form will change a driver's behavior. "A driver is not going to be any more responsible after passing a classroom course than an Internet-based course. Responsible driving requires maturity."

Ouch. In the meantime, we prefer poolside with a laptop.

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