Out-of-Line Drivers Go OnlineWIRED NEWS - October 22, 1999
The only thing worse than getting a speeding ticket on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon is having to spend a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in traffic school.
Now offenders have an alternative to the inconvenience of traffic school: They can spend a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon completing the course online.
Or they can do it any hour of the day, naturally.
"Taking a whole Saturday [for traffic school] is a big chunk of time if you work," said Catherine Green, who has been to comedy traffic school twice.
But Valerie Steinmaus, who completed Web Traffic School, wanted to try it the new way. "I was really happy that they offered the option of doing it over the Web," she said. "It was really convenient."
If a person is cited for a moving violation -- speeding, driving the wrong way down a one-way street, making an illegal turn, etc. -- traffic school masks the violation from the insurance company, and no points are deducted from her license.
Traffic school entails spending a full day in a classroom watching driving safety movies and listening to lectures on road rage. But that's better than having a ticket on record.
Online schools claim they offer a more educational experience, for less time and more convenience to the offender.
"Classroom traffic school is perceived as a form of punishment rather than re-education," said Sam Crump, vice president of Traffic School Online.
"We're not punishing people. We are trying to help people drive better," agreed Web Traffic School president Gary Golduber.
Both online schools require reading different sections of driving information and passing brief multiple-choice quizzes after each one. Every student must pass a final of up to 40 questions, drawn randomly from a database so none of the tests are alike. Users must have a score of 80 percent to pass.
"I think because I was reading so much I retained more than I would have in a live traffic school," Steinmaus said.
The course and final exam costs between US$19.95 and $25.95, and a completion certificate is mailed within two days. The companies estimate that the online course takes between 4-6 hours.
Users at Web Traffic School also have the option of completing a video version of the same material via the Web.
"Everything the DMV requires is in this program," Golduber said.
The problem is, the Department of Motor Vehicles hasn't approved these sites.
"We don't license them because we feel there's a problem with verifying attendance," said Evan Nossoff, a spokesman for the California DMV.
But busted drivers can satisfy the requirements if the court system has approved a Web-based class as one of the options; in other words, it depends upon the county where the driver was cited, regardless of DMV approval.
Traffic School Online said that 80 out of the 136 courts in California have approved their online course; Web Traffic School is in 111 courts. Both companies said they plan to expand to other states.
Nossoff complained that once someone signs up on the Web, a friend or relative could do the test for the offender, whereas a classroom traffic school can verify the driver is present.
Web Traffic School CEO Isaak Tsifrin said his company has taken steps to ensure that the driver is the one taking the test. When students begin the course, they supply such information as height, eye color, weight, part of their credit card number, four digits of their social security number, etc.
Also, at different points during the online course, a window will pop up asking for verification from the driver. The window is programmed to stay open for a specified period of time; if no answer or an incorrect answer is supplied ... busted again.
"We presume that you will not share this personal information with other people," Tsifrin said.
Additionally, in February, Tsifrin's site will use voice recognition software for courts that require it, he added.
Both schools will not advance the user to the next section unless they have spent an acceptable amount of time reviewing the material.
In some courts, drivers can take an online course, but they must go to a separate location to take the final exam in person.
Cheating could also be a concern; students conceivably could have two browser windows open simultaneously -- one for the test and the other to view the section being tested. Or, they could have two computers operating at the same time.
But many classroom schools don't require any tests anyway.
"A Free Pizza 4 You Comedy 2" traffic school requires that students take a 10-question, true-false test.
"It's very, very hard to fail," said Suzanne Coleman, customer service manager for the school.
That doesn't mean the school lacks legitimacy, she said."We are a serious school but we have pizza and comedy passes to ease the pain of traffic school," she said. "Sometimes a student doesn't want a cop teaching the class. Instead, they want a regular instructor who can relate to the different situations with a twist of comedy."
Joe Munsinger said his teacher reminded him of Tony Randall. He enjoyed the class and said he would go again if he had to.
"[Internet traffic school] doesn't sound like it's as much fun," Munsinger said.
"Traffic school is a really good way to learn about traffic laws and your rights," Munsinger said. "I guess I still drive like a maniac, though."
Indeed, a 1995 California DMV study found little attitude change or knowledge gain for drivers who attended traffic school. In fact, those who attended the schools had a higher 1-year accident rate than those who got a conviction, a 1991 study showed.
"That's cause for concern," the DMV's Nossoff said.
And the live schools are all equally unsuccessful at producing better drivers.
"We didn't find any difference between the pizza and the non-pizza and the comedy and the non-comedy," Nossoff said.
Tsifrin said that's why the online schools are better.
"People are physically there but their mind is wandering. An instructor cannot verify what each student knows and if he is listening," Tsifrin said.
So far, the Net has not cut into their business, A Free Pizza 4 You Comedy 2's Coleman said.
"We're just as busy as we are any other day," she said.
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