America Brakes for Online Traffic Schools

If there's nothing as exciting as the open road, there's nothing more tedious than driver's education and traffic school.

But a new trend has students getting behind the mouse to learn about the rules of the road. Online schools offer driver's ed for people learning to drive and traffic classes — refreshers or specialized courses on "road rage" — for people who have their license but who've gotten tickets.

"You can do it anywhere in the world," said Steve Soldis of Traffic School Online. "I've had people in California who completed their courses in London."

Gina Gates, of the Private Educational Network, said online courses let people set their own pace.

"Who pays attention for eight hours in a classroom?" she said. "With an Internet program you can fade out but when you come back it's still there."

Skeptics say teaching how to operate a massive chunk of metal at breakneck speeds is something better left to human beings.

Soldis was one of the first of a growing number of entrepreneurs to meld 21st-century technology with the 20th-century teenage rite of passage.

He got the idea, naturally, after getting a speeding ticket in 1997. Soldis, from Santa Rosa, Calif., realized he could bring the concept of take-home courses to the Internet, and began lobbying municipal traffic committees all over California.

Now his traffic school is accepted in California, Virginia, Oregon, Alaska, Delaware, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Arizona.

Courses, which cost $24.95 to $49.95, are geared toward specific state's laws. After completing the coursework, students go to testing centers like public libraries for a final exam. Soldis said taking the test at a center doesn't conflict with the basic idea of online classes, convenience and helps ensure against cheating.

"It's not as convenient, but it will prevent the industry from going out of business," he said. "Would you rather spend eight hours in a class or 15 minutes in a testing center?"

Soldis' school also recently began offering driver's ed courses.

"High schools are dropping these programs because they're too costly," he said.

Under the program, students have to go elsewhere for road training, but take classroom courses online.

In the case of San Jose, Calif.- based, a teenager's behind-the-wheel teacher is his parent.

"I'm always the instructor, there's no changing that," Gates, a driving instructor for 15 years, said. "Now we have mom and dad helping me."

Parents have to proctor their children's exams, guiding the student along the great interstate to adulthood. PENSchool's course costs $110.

Online driving schools are following in the tire marks of online universities, Gates said.

But not everyone sees the Internet as the expressway to safer driving.

"I don't think online can near get across to the students some of the seriousness of driving attitudes," Randy Savage, president of All-American Driving School in Garland, Texas, said. "Alcohol awareness, seat-belt safety, road rage — all these different things won't come across on a computer."

Gates admitted there are drawbacks to online teaching.

"You do lose the one-on-one questions," she said. "And are 100 percent of our parents proctoring our kids? I'd probably say not. But most parents? Yes."

Soldis said his course's nearly 95-percent pass rate isn't a sign that it's a rubber stamp for traffic offenders.

"If you want real punishment, go make them pick up trash in the streets," he said. "But if you want it to be educational, this is the way to do it."

But Russ Rader, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, questioned whether any course, online or not, is effective.

"The bottom line is that driver education in and of itself isn't effective in reducing crashes or in changing driver behavior," he said.

California Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman Armando Botello said the DMV is conducting a study to see how effective online courses are compared to classroom courses. The results will be presented in May 2003.

Either way, taking driving courses online didn't appeal to Anna Fuerniss, a 29-year-old doctor who recently got her license after moving to Brooklyn, N.Y., from Germany.

"It seems silly to me, and I don't see how it could work," she said. "And for me, personally, I prefer to learn from books."