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September 7, 2000

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In Some States, Speeders Cool Their Heels in Online Classes

By KAREN J. BANNAN

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Sue Welsh got a speeding ticket this year. Facing a point on her license and a possible increase in insurance rates, she had two options. She could go to a state-sponsored traffic safety school to wipe out any penalty on her license or go to court to contest the charge and take her chances with the judge.

Although Ms. Welsh, a law school librarian from Acampo, Calif., preferred the class option, she was worried that she would not be able to find one that fit into her schedule. When she got her paperwork from the court, she was happy to discover that there was an online driving school that she could attend whenever she felt like it.

"I had a new job, and I was really afraid I wouldn't be able to take my traffic school classes," Ms. Welsh said. "I actually finished the course at work on my lunch hour, and it was incredibly convenient."

Ms. Welsh is among a small but growing group of drivers who are opting to take driver safety classes online. The classes use streaming video, lessons and online tests to accomplish what usually takes four to eight hours to do in a classroom.

Although students can end up spending the same amount of time online, many find the online classes more convenient because they can take them whenever they choose. A student can spend 10 minutes with the program and go back to it the next day to pick it up at the same point. Most driving schools taught in classrooms require students to put in a seven-hour stretch on a Saturday or Sunday or two nights during the week. And online students can save money because the classes start at $19.95.

The online programs available now include a pilot program sponsored by the National Safety Council and three commercial Web-based programs, TrafficSchoolOnline.com (trafficschoolonline.com), TrafficSchool.com (trafficschool.com) and Web Traffic School (webtrafficschool.com). Although anyone with access to the Web can take the programs, they are certified in only a handful of states. Even within those states, certification varies from one jurisdiction to another. California, where Ms. Welsh lives, was one of the first states to accredit online programs. Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming followed with limited programs of their own, according to the owners of the Web-based schools.

Online classes are not an option in New York State. Unlike many other states, New York's traffic safety schools primarily attract drivers who want to lower their insurance costs by 10 percent. More than 500,000 New York State residents take the six-hour classes each year, and only about 10 percent of them do so to reduce the number of points on their licenses, said Joe Picchi, associate commissioner for communications at the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.

Last year, the New York legislature approved a bill that would have let drivers take online traffic classes that would have been similar to those available in other states. But the bill was vetoed by Gov. George E. Pataki, who said he was concerned about fraud. "These programs pose special challenges in respect to verifying the identity of individuals taking the course," he wrote in his veto message.

Since courses are taken entirely online, students can cheat by having other people take the classes for them, or have other applications or browsers open while the course is running. The creators of the online courses are looking at technology like speech recognition and other strategies for weeding out cheaters.

To address the question of deception, TrafficSchoolOnline.com recently joined forces with Kinko's copy centers in California, Virginia, Maryland, Oregon and Washington, D.C., in a pilot program that is designed to put officials at ease. Students in the pilot program take lessons online, but they are required to take a final exam at a Kinko's center, where they must show photo ID cards. After they pass the exam, they receive their course certificate.

"Typically, people do the course in a week or two," said Samuel Crump, president of TrafficSchoolOnline.com, which is based in Santa Rosa, Calif., "and even though they have to go into Kinko's to take the test, they are still ahead because they can take their time and really learn the material."

Web Traffic School is taking a different approach by working on a voice-recognition component for its online course. When students sign up for the course, they must speak into their computers, using a microphone. They can also call into the service using a regular telephone. During the course, the students are periodically prompted to verify their identities the same way. Telephone users can be called on the phone at any time.

"We only give people 30 seconds to speak into the microphone, so you don't have enough time to call your spouse into the room to speak their name," said Isaak Tsifrin, the chief executive and founder of Interactive Solutions, the parent company of Web Traffic School, in Oakland, Calif. "We also retain the right to call the students to make sure it's actually them."

Mr. Picchi said New York State could decide to allow the online courses in the near future, after the Department of Motor Vehicles completes an assessment of the state program for reducing driver's license points or insurance rates. "There are sponsors that have come to us with ideas for an online program," he said. "We're considering them, but right now we want to make sure that the current program is effective."

Ms. Welsh said she had liked her online traffic safety course at Web Traffic School. "Ordinarily I would prefer a classroom situation, but this was a great alternative," she said. "I really feel I learned a lot, and I got 100 percent on the test."


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