At least 20 traffic schools have been issuing certificates to drivers who never took an eight-hour course required to erase traffic citations from their records, according to state officials.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles has been conducting a fraud investigation into the pattern of abuse, DMV spokeswoman Gina McGuiness said last week. She refused to identify the schools, saying it would jeopardize the investigation.
About 550,000 motorists each pay $15 to $30 annually to attend traffic school, according to DMV estimates. By earning a certificate, motorists remove violations from their records and save hundreds of dollars in higher car insurance costs.
But state officials and traffic school operators said hundreds of bad drivers take advantage of lax enforcement and acquire training certificates without spending the hours needed to earn them legitimately.
"We can't tolerate that," said Democratic Assemblyman Tom Bane of Van Nuys. "The program should be cleaned up or abolished." Legislation that Bane sponsored last year made the DMV responsible for regulating the state's 350 traffic schools.
Two weeks ago, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich called for a grand jury investigation of traffic schools, and he also criticized the DMV for failing to spend most of the money collected in fees to monitor the program.
McGuiness said investigators have targeted at least 20 driver training schools and have gone undercover to attempt to obtain a certificate without attending class. She said only one traffic school has been suspended since Bane's legislation went into effect in January, 1985.
A DMV investigator suspended the license for Southwestern Traffic Schools in Palm Springs on May 1 after an undercover investigator got a certificate after just 30 minutes in one of the classes.
Roger Kraft, president of AID Driving and Traffic Schools, said that when he entered the traffic school business in 1982, "all you had to do is send a couple of pieces of paper to the DMV and they'd give you accreditation." Kraft said the DMV does the best it can under the law with limited resources, but he said the abuses have continued.
Michael Bass, president of the California Assn. of Alcohol and Traffic Schools, said owners of legitimate schools also want to rid the state of illegal operators.