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YOUR WHEELS: Online traffic school gives new way to clear records

Los Angeles Times | February 18, 2004

The Internet provides comprehensive lessons. But can officials be sure who is taking the test?

In Los Angeles County alone, about 144,000 drivers a year attend traffic schools to clear their driving records and avoid higher insurance rates. But rather than attend six to 12 hours of traffic school in a classroom setting, many motorists fulfill their obligations over the Internet.

Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, Sacramento and Santa Barbara are among the 30-plus counties in the state that sanction online traffic schools. (Orange County still requires drivers to take traditional traffic school classes.)

If you are eligible for traffic school, the court with jurisdiction over your case will provide a list of accepted schools. In Los Angeles County almost 50 traditional and online schools are listed by the California Traffic Safety Institute. You are still required to pay your traffic fine, however, and any class fees.

Online traffic school classes typically cost $17 to $30 in California.

Last year, after getting a ticket for making an illegal turn, I attended a traditional traffic school in Orange County. Although I expected the class to be boring, it was actually informative and entertaining.

The first night of the class, my instructor, a former traffic officer, had everyone reveal his or her offense. Many were cited for blowing through stop signs or red lights, speeding or driving on the wrong side of the road. The instructor not only reviewed the laws and safety issues but also gave us tips on how to respond when pulled over by police: Tell the truth, don't jump out of your car, and don't be a jerk.

Since then, I've heard more about online traffic schools, and I recently I checked out http://www.trafficschoolonline.com .

In some respects, I found the course to be even more comprehensive than a traditional class.

The online class included more than 50 pages of lessons and tests, everything from road rage to testing for driving under the influence. Color diagrams showed how to avoid potential accidents and how to keep safe distances behind vehicles. And there were plenty of statistics, including that more than 50% of all fatal accidents occur at night.

There were five sections to the course each with a 10-question test plus a final exam of 25 questions. To pass, students had to get at least 80% of the questions correct.

"Some people like going to a class, others don't," said Steve Soldis, chief executive of TrafficSchoolOnline.com. The goal is to "educate people not punish."

One concern about any online course is the potential for motorists to skim through the material without really studying. Indeed, some Internet students boast that they have fast-forwarded on some programs directly to the test and wound up spending only 30 minutes on the entire course.

Not every Internet traffic course lets you do so. On http://www.trafficschoolonline.com , I tried to jump ahead and got a warning that I needed to spend more time on the section.

As Internet traffic schools continue to grow in popularity, there also is rising concern regarding the potential for cheating.

Consider that although Los Angeles County monitors traditional walk-in traffic schools, there is no such monitoring of online traffic courses. Indeed, the county doesn't even know how many traffic students clear their records online.

But judges in Los Angeles County Superior Court are developing new criteria to ensure that the people who are sitting down at the computer, or ordering home-study classwork, are the ones taking the test, said Greg Blair, Los Angeles County senior court manager.

Blair said that to validate online traffic school results, the county could copy other states and use electronic fingerprinting or video cameras that are sent home with motorists to make sure they actually take their tests.

Still, even traditional traffic schools are not immune to fraud. Last year, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich called for tighter controls on traffic schools after an investigation by a local TV station that found that some schools were selling certificates of completion to people who never attended classes.

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