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Traffic School Can Be Fun--but Not if You're From the County

August 11, 1988|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

Quick now: What does the stop sign at your corner stand for? "Slow to observe police."

"I grew up on a small island in Hawaii. We had one stop light on the entire island. We all ran it. We knew it meant: Don't hit the people coming from the other direction."

Sean Hennigan weaves the jokes in with citations from the state vehicle code, teaching eight-hour courses for traffic offenders at a school where the instructors are not traffic cops or California Highway Patrol officers, but comics.

There's a catch, though: Although the school Hennigan works for--Lettuce Amuse You, Laff'n Learn Terrific School--has five offices in the county, if you live and work in the county you generally can't go to that school to absolve yourself of ticket problems (only to learn to drive).

If you live and work in the county and if you choose to go to traffic school rather than simply pay the fine for speeding, running a red light, turning left where you shouldn't, the court will let you go to a school given on Saturdays or weekday nights at a county courthouse.

All those schools are run by the Academy of Defensive Driving, which is based in San Juan Capistrano and which has had the exclusive contract to run schools for in-county offenders since 1979.

Until then, there were more than 30 traffic schools operating in the county and a motorist with a ticket could choose which one to attend.

But Municipal Court judges, who hear traffic cases, complained that standards varied widely from school to school, that some seemed not to keep offenders in class as long as the Department of Motor Vehicles required, and that some even had instructors who had been heard to criticize some of the judges in Orange County.

The judges said they would prefer to have one school run all the classes and apply uniform standards. They said having one school would also cut down the chances of a motorist who piled up moving violation citations, avoiding detection by switching schools each time. (In Orange County, you can't attend traffic school if you've already been to one in the last two years.)

The Board of Supervisors let traffic schools bid for the exclusive contract. The winner was the Academy of Defensive Driving, a frequent contributor to county supervisors. In 1987, the academy kicked in $2,800 to three of the five supervisors. A lawsuit failed to overturn the supervisors' 1979 award and the company has won new contracts ever since.

Traffic school instructors said many of the schools in business before 1979 shut their doors when the academy got the exclusive contract. There are now estimated to be fewer than a dozen schools operating the county.

Louise Napoli, an analyst in the county's administrative office, said the last time the Academy of Defensive Driving had competition for a contract was 1984. The academy won a one-year contract then, had it extended another year, then two more years and renewed again. It now runs through December of 1989, when it is supposed to be rebid.

Napoli said the $45 fee for traffic school is broken down as follows: $9 for the Academy of Defensive Driving; $12 administrative fee; $10 to the local jurisdiction that writes the ticket; $10 to the county for the court space; $2 fee for the certificate given to the traffic school "graduate"; $2 for a criminal justice facility fund and a courthouse construction fund.

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