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THIS IS NOT YOUR FATHER'S TRAFFIC SCHOOL

''How many of you thought the speed limit in the carpool lane was 55 miles per

hour--per person?'' Reed Berry asks at the beginning of his eight-hour class. This California comedian-cum-traffic-school teacher uses one-liners to get the ball rolling, gently ribbing his students about speeding, running red lights, and various other moving violations.

Such offenses brought students to Berry's class, which is affiliated with the Improv comedy clubs in California and elsewhere. When a student explains that she got a speeding ticket while playing cards with a passenger, Berry quips: ''Not only did you violate traffic laws, I think that you violated state gaming laws.''

Whether you're guilty of speeding or tailgating, you can yuk it up at this school or a plethora of other interesting defensive driving courses across the country--in lieu of paying your fine and/or accruing points on your driver's license. Tuition costs $20 to $50 or more. In addition, you'll pay an administrative fee of about $25 to the court.

STUDY AT HOME. Traffic schools used to be so deadly dull that they were like doing hard time. Straightforward programs still exist, of course, such as those run by the National Safety Council. But a few states will let drivers try more offbeat offerings. U.S. Interactive's take-home kit, for instance, can be rented for three days from Blockbuster Video for $39.99. It comes with two videotapes and a small terminal unit that hooks into your phone jack. On-Line Interactive's $34 home-study program lets folks take a traffic course via the Internet (www.online traffic.com.) At Indoor Grand Prix in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, students of Mike Sullivan's class in defensive driving can burn rubber on go-karts during breaks.

Those who want to munch on pizza, chocolate, or ice cream while digesting rules about stop signs and turn signals will find classes that cater to those tastes in Southern California. Courses in the region are also offered in Spanish, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Laws vary widely by state--andnot every state will allow you to attend traffic school rather than either paying your fine or having points added to your record. In some cases, violators must go to traffic court and ask the judge if they can attend traffic school instead. In other states, how-ever, you can handle it by mail.

Florida motorists, for instance, just sign an affidavit that says they want to go to traffic school and mail it to the court with their fine, which is lowered by 18%.

Generally, you are not permitted to attend these courses more than once per year. Nor can you take classes to avoid fines on the most serious violations, such as for reckless or drunk driving or speeding more than 25 mph over limits.

Classes last from four to eight hours over one or two days, and you often have to take a multiple-choice test at the course's end. Basic rules of the road and defensive-driving techniques are covered: how to change lanes, yield the right of way, and drive on slick roads.

A judge can order you to go to traffic school, of course, if you've amassed, say, three tickets in the past 12 months and your license is at risk of being suspended. However, many drivers decide to attend because they want to keep the citation off their records and thus concealed from insurance companies. Insurers often raise their rates after a driver has garnered a few points.

The most curious arrangement, however, may be in Texas. The Lone Star State lets you clock up to 94 mph (70 is the speed limit) without forcing you to pay a ticket or add a single point to your record as long as you attend a six-hour class. What's more, that one visit to traffic school will also earn you a 10% annual discount for three years on your car's liability and collision coverage. Neil Boot, executive director of the public-safety group at the National Safety Council, contends that such a system rewards poor drivers. If their state permits, drivers good or bad can sign up for a course just to get an insurance discount.

MIXED RESULTS. Some three dozen other states allow insurers to offer up to a 15% annual discount for three years for those who attend traffic school. But many of these classes are only offered to folks age 55 and older. Generally, errant drivers can't reap both the discount and the reduction of points.

Does traffic school improve driver behavior? Research is often contradictory. Florida has found that, on average, drivers who attended a traffic school received 5% fewer citations and were involved in 10% fewer collisions than other motorists. But California concluded in a 1995 study that drivers who have taken the classes are 10.2% more likely to have an accident than those who simply paid their tickets.

While it may not be a long-term solution for all those habitually careless drivers out there, traffic school could get you off easy. And you might even have a few laughs.

Barbara Hetzer


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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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