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Speeding Through '90s-Style Traffic School

June 12, 1997|HARRY CHANDLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Harry Chandler, a director of New Media for The Times, passed his home study program, had his speeding ticket removed from his driving record and has vowed to slow down--a little

I like to think I'm living in the fast lane, but I know sooner or later, someone will want me to slow down. Last month, it was the CHP, which interrupted the I'm-late zoom home on the eastbound Santa Monica Freeway.

It was not the first time. Every few years, I get caught, ending up in the eight-hour speeder's punishment--traffic school.

This time the Los Angeles County Municipal Court notice offered an alternative, one that seemed more fitting for someone stopped while returning from an Internet business meeting. The alternative: the On-line Interactive Home Study Program--traffic school on my home computer.

Although the brochure warned that the program might take longer than eight hours to complete, I was willing to try anything to escape the tedium of traffic school.

So I (almost) eagerly sent in my $34. A few days later, I got an e-mail with my log-on password. I was ready to face my cyber-detention. Now, it's true that the computer is unable to verify exactly who is using the password; a more dishonest person might have tried to recruit, say, his teenage son to endure the schooling in his place.

But I was actually intrigued by what lay ahead. Besides, my son said he had his own homework to do.

*

OK, I'm at the computer, I've synchronized my watch, and I boot up my electronic retribution. I maneuver to http://www.onlinetraffic.com, where the password allows my entry to the course: There will be five parts plus a final review. I feel as if I should have my No. 2 pencils sharpened and ready.

The course blocks me from jumping ahead or turning back. I click on "Begin Study Program" and wait. Almost 10 minutes have passed and I haven't started. I'm thinking that the opening monologue at the comedy traffic school would be just getting under way.

The program offers facts, figures and information about basic driver safety. It's more detail than my brain is likely to remember. So I pull out pen and paper to make notes on what I guess will be key points on the test. After each electronic page, there is a loooonnnnggg wait on my 28.8 modem for the next page. Although the pages are primarily text, the folks who put this test online have opted to scan each page as a big photograph, making the download time excessive. Not a problem if you have a high-speed connection, but at home, the waiting is drudgery.

Maybe this is intentional to teach me to slow down.

It's not working.

I get to the first questions, mostly multiple choice and true / false. I need to refer repeatedly to my notes for the specific mph or number of car lengths-type factoids. One I just can't remember and have to hit the "back" button to review the relevant text. Luckily the pages display much faster the second time. Still, a book would be a lot faster to search for the answers than these clumsy text / photo pages.

When I think I have gotten all right, I move to the next part. Thirty-five minutes so far. In traffic school, the instructor would probably be going around the room to coax participants to tell why they were ticketed.

The next section is just as slow, more motor vehicle trivia. At least I'm getting a jump start on the next driver license test. I continue taking written notes, feeling a bit cocky. My son comes by to see if I am really studying or have switched over to playing solitaire. I wish. Maybe there is still a way to get him to help me, I am thinking. I tell him that he will have to be tested on this very same stuff when he is old enough to get his driver license. He takes one look at the detail on the screen and scurries away.

Suddenly, there is a graphic with a "click here" sign. It takes me to a screen offering a funny little animation. I am grateful for some relief. This never happened when I was using a No. 2 pencil.

The Part 2 questions appear and are answered quickly. This section goes by in 20 minutes. At this rate, I can't imagine how this is going to take eight hours. But with this page-at-a-time process, I still can't predict what lies on the road ahead. Still, I am pumped at the thought that this course could be a lot shorter than the eight-hour expectation. I shift into high gear.

Part 3 passes, Part 4 zooms by. Fifty-five minutes, an hour and 20. Although the material has switched to driving-under-the-influence and gotten harder, I am racing against the clock now with my need for speed. I hit Part 5 and don't even stop to try out the little animation. No cops in the rear view mirror now. Page after page clip by, and I start to regret not having upgraded to a faster modem. I figure I could be shaving off a few crucial minutes just waiting for these pages to download. I start to curse when I have to go backward to find some little detail I missed. If I were in a real traffic school, we would just be getting into the meat of the course by now.

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