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VENTURA COUNTY

Moving Violators May Attend Traffic School by Computer

January 04, 1997|MACK REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attention, California motorists.

Now, online wizardry offers you traffic school in the comfort of your own home. No more dreary strip-mall storefronts or droning lectures by highway patrolmen. No more shockumentaries starring accident victims. No more lame jokes by washed-up comics.

Just rent three videos, answer an online questionnaire through a rented computer and erase those traffic tickets from your easy chair.

It sounds like a pitchman's fever dream. But Friday, Ventura County courts announced that they will become the first in California to offer a computerized, eight-hour home-study traffic school that has already cleared tickets for 100,000 Texas motorists.

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Starting Jan. 13, Ventura County traffic violators can walk into their local Blockbuster video store, pay $39.99 to rent three videotapes and a suitcase-like computer.

Once at home, they will watch the video traffic lessons--consisting of roadside reenactments, driver testimonials and lectures by celebs such as Jerry Seinfeld and Phil Donahue.

Then they must hook up the computer and use a toll-free phone line to log on to U.S. Interactive, the Houston-based traffic school that designed the course.

U.S. Interactive's computer administers a quiz between each hourlong video lesson. If the fine has already been paid and the motorist correctly answers all the questions, the computer automatically erases any record of the traffic ticket.

Critics scoff. The program is impersonal, expensive and far from foolproof, said Bruce Elkins, whose Southern California chain of Cheap Schools offers eight-hour traffic courses for only $20.

But Elkins added, grumbling: "I don't know, maybe it's the wave of the future. People want to lose weight and they want to eat, too."

Officials with the Ventura County courts swear the online traffic school will foil hackers and cheaters alike. And they promise it will lighten the court system's workload and offer a humane, more educational alternative to the ordeal of traffic school.

"This interactive system seems to present people with the opportunity to learn more and retain more information," said Vince Ordonez Jr., assistant executive officer of the Ventura County Courts. "Because they're watching videos and having to answer questions, they probably have to pay a lot more attention."

The online course is timed by the computer and designed to thwart cheating. Each hourlong video section is followed by an online quiz that also asks personal questions that can only be answered correctly by the traffic violator taking the course.

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Texas driver-education officials say the 3-year-old program works and works well, despite the possibility that a few cheaters may go to great lengths to duck the full eight-hour course.

One possible scam outlined by Texas authorities involves one motorist "carrying" another. The test taker logs on to U.S. Interactive and follows the course through his own computer phone line while using a cellular phone to call a friend.

The friend--also using a cellular to keep his wired line open for the computer--punches in the correct answers without having to sit through the videos.

The method is expensive--with all that air time--and no one's been caught at it yet, said Kathy Kenerson, director of driver training for the Texas Education Agency. "But we've also found the regular course can be circumvented. Someone goes to class for someone else, and [instructors] don't always check for IDs."

U.S. Interactive President Scott Owens said his course has educated about 100,000 Texans and erased about the same number of tickets from their records, with a failure rate of only 3% to 5%.

Even the failures get another chance, he said. Operators are standing by to review motorists' test results and walk them through the lessons again until they pass.

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