• Drivers Get Schooled On Some Cyber-Roads

    Driver's Ed On Internet

    Doesn't replace behind the wheel training, but often accelerates process

    Teenagers in several states can now detour around high school driver's education classrooms and learn the rules of the road in cyberspace.

    Just ask Darya Vasilyeva, a junior at Independence High School in San Francisco.
    She couldn't fit a regular driver's ed course into her crowded schedule. So she went online instead.

    "I have way too many things to do. I'm taking seven classes already,"
    Vasilyeva said. "I don't have the time or patience to spend a semester on the regular course."

    When the 16-year-old learned driver's education was a graduation requirement, she signed up for a $99 course at DriversEd.com, letting her take the state learner's permit test. Vasilyeva put in about 25 hours one week on the course, doing interactive exercises and taking tests at night and when it was quiet at her part-time receptionist job.

    She passed the Department of Motor Vehicles test, a prerequisite for behind-the-wheel training, on her first try.

    Vasilyeva dismisses the notion that teenagers might be tempted to cheat and let someone else log on and do the course for them.

    "I paid for it, and I wanted to get my money's worth," she said.

    Gary Tsifrin, whose parents owned brick-and-mortar driving schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, started Oakland, Calif.-based DriversEd.com along with his father and another partner in 1997.

    A doctoral candidate in history at Cornell University, Tsifrin says he takes education - including the online driving version - seriously.

    For one, he wants to see stricter regulation of the industry.

    While California's DMV regulates the content of traditional driver's education programs, it doesn't do the same for those in cyberspace.

    "We invite the industry - driver's education and traffic school - to be more heavily regulated so as to raise the overall standards," he said.

    With 20 employees and tens of thousands of students annually in California and other states, DriversEd.com is picking up speed.

    Its revenue increased by 80% from 2003 to 2004, according to Tsifrin.

    The American Automobile Association also is in the business of Internet education. It has courses in a handful of states, including California, Texas and Virginia. And it plans to expand, says William Van Tassel, a manager of driving training operations in Heathrow, Fla.

    AAA's online offerings include classes to obtain insurance discounts, training for package transport and bus company employees, and classes for "mature" drivers.

    But when it comes to new drivers, the auto club thinks education has to take place both online and offline.
    "Online courses can supplement but not substitute for classroom education or in-car training for novices," Van Tassel said.

    Traffic school - for drivers who want to keep that ticket for speeding or running a red light off their records - also has gone online.

    Many working in the field of road safety find that troubling.

    The Governors Highway Safety Association, a Washington-based nonprofit that represents state road safety agencies, is not enthusiastic about online driving education.

    Why? For one thing, there's no way to keep tabs on just what's taught, says Barbara Harsha, the group's executive director.

    "There are a ton of driver's ed courses, including online courses," said Harsha. "There is really no way to evaluate them."

    The organization opposes traffic school in general and online traffic school in particular. There's no way to know that the person who got the ticket was the one who took the course, Harsha says.

    "If we think there might be a problem with online driver's training, think about online driving school for impaired drivers," Harsha said.

    There's a larger issue, which is whether driver's education in general makes for safer roads.

    Research shows it doesn't, according to Susan Ferguson of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. The Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit research organization is funded by the insurance industry.

    Studies all over the globe show the same thing, Ferguson says: Driver's education courses do little to improve safety. "Even fairly well-designed programs have shown little evidence that they result in safer drivers," she said.

    For new drivers who need to learn the basics, courses serve a purpose. But there's little benefit for experienced drivers who don't follow the rules, Ferguson says.

    "People do routinely break traffic laws," Ferguson said. "The only proven way to get them to change their behavior is for them to perceive that if they break the law, there will be consequences."

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