• Serving Time on the Web in Traffic School

    Everyone knows that you can use the Net to hunt down rare books, find a scrumptious date, or engage in a gazillion other activities once limited to the telephone or (shudder) personal interaction. For Californians—whose worship of computers nearly matches their devotion to automobiles—the Web solves yet another pesky problem: attending traffic school. As a repeat "traffic violator" (the quaint term used by driving educators) now paying my debt to society, I can attest that the idea is as Big Brother as it sounds.

    California, like other states, allows perpetrators of less-than-grievous crimes to attend traffic school after being slapped with a ticket. The driver's motivation is financial. Moving violations stamp points on your license, which lead to higher insurance premiums. Traffic school cleans up your record.

    I paid my fine instead of attending school when I got my first ticket last year for running a red light in San Francisco. (Don't judge: You try driving 37,000 miles up and down Silicon Valley in 18 months without running afoul of the law.) But when an officer stopped me for trying to pass a confused driver on a congested off-ramp in San Mateo a few months ago, I knew that without attending traffic school, I'd be hundreds of dollars in the hole.

    Fortunately, San Mateo County allows "home study" as an alternative to attending traffic school in a classroom , including two Internet seminars at Websites www.trafficschoolonline.com and www.webtrafficschool.com. I chose the latter and enrolled in a six-part course for $ 19.95. WebTrafficSchool's videos and text are similar to the material I read when I was 16 and readying for my first driver's license exam. There are lectures on why even one drink before driving is dangerous; on the virtues of seat belts; and on the different meanings of white, green, yellow, red, and blue curbs. (Don't know the difference? Neither do I—even now.)

    The real innovations of the course are the tricks it uses to ensure that students don't rush through the lessons or ask someone else to sit in for them. Course pages won't advance until a certain amount of time has elapsed. Then, to ensure that I am taking the course, I'm periodically asked to verify my license, ticket number, date of birth, or eye color. This is just the start. Gary Golduber, president of WebTrafficSchool's parent company, Interactive Solutions in Oakland, tells me he's working on software that will identify a user by the sound of his voice.

    As with so many of the Web's efficiency-oriented innovations, this one has its drawbacks. I am glad I haven't had to leave my home or office. But after four weeks, I'm just halfway through a curriculum designed to take three hours. There are too many distractions -- a breaking story to cover, an unread magazine, the dirty dishes in the sink—to finish this course quickly. The California Highway Patrol should be happy, though: While I'm plodding through driving school, I'm not on the road.

    Developments on the Web move quickly and so does ADAM LASHINSKY. He's now the new Silicon Valley columnist for TheStreet.com.

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