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I Got Pulled Over, But Did Traffic School Make Me A Better Driver?

Tim Padgett
WLRN reporter and speed limit scofflaw Wilson Sayre.

South Florida drivers have a certain reputation and driving fast is a big part of that. Last year, 798,000 people in Florida were pulled over for speeding. A little more than 136,000 people used some version of a traffic school to mask the points on their license so that insurance premiums don’t go up.

And now, I am a part of that; I was going 88 in a 70-mile-per-hour zone in St. Lucie County.

I won’t make any excuses; I was getting really into the music during "Prairie Home Companion" and was just sailing along. A very nice officer decided I needed to be going a bit slower and gave me a ticket to that effect. It certainly beat the first time I got pulled over in high school when a cop on a horse nabbed me for speeding, but that’s a whole other story.

Credit Improv Comedy Traffic School
From the Improv Comedy Traffic School online class.

  So, I was not really excited about the idea of my insurance rates going up, and I did what a lot of people do. I took a traffic class. You can take it online or in person. I took Improv Comedy Traffic School online.

“We use humor to deliver a very important message,” said Gary Alexander, the guy who started the school. “People who come to our classes are not novice drivers. And hopefully by the end of the class we reach at least every person, and they have this ah-ha! moment: “Hey, you know, maybe I should put on my seat belt,” “maybe I should slow down.’”

After the four-hour class, I passed the final test—39 out of 40 questions right—printed out my certificate of completion, sent it to the clerk of courts and wiped my hands of the whole matter.

Proof the reporter did, in fact, pass the course.

And I had a few ah-ha moments, but the next day getting into my car, I wondered if I was now somehow a better driver. Are these traffic classes actually effective?

Turns out, it depends on who you ask.

'Traffic Schools Work' Camp

“They definitely are,” says Ray Graves, who oversees traffic classes for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The department does a periodic study of these classes, which you can see here.

They way the DHSMV does its study is by looking at the driving records of groups of people who took a class, 18 months before and 18 months after. They compared those driving records to a group of the general population and found an improvement for students in each of the driving schools offered in the state.

'They're Ineffective' Camp

On the other side of the aisle, though, is Steve Bloch, who worked as a traffic safety researcher for AAA of Southern California. Bloch retired about a year ago, but he spent his career doing in-depth research on this stuff.

“One of the things that people learned is not necessarily being a better driver, but how to avoid tickets,” said Bloch.

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
Bloch's study on traffic schools.

  In his study, they found the classes to be pretty much ineffective at improving a driver’s likelihood of getting citations or into a crash.

So it seems like Bloch’s answer can’t be reconciled with the Florida study. But Bloch approached the question a bit differently.

Bloch found that the general population is different from people who take driving courses. So you can’t compare them; they’re apples and oranges.

The people taking the class may have more money, or less money, or they might care more about getting points on their license. Whatever their motivation, they’re different from the general population of drivers.

So in order to compare apples to apples Bloch had to find people who were planning to take a traffic class.

“People actually showed up for the class in the morning… ready to take the class and we dismissed 3,000 people,” explains Bloch. “Thank you for showing up; go home.”

Bloch compared the people who were sent home to people who actually took the course. Using that method, again - Bloch found the classes to be pretty much ineffective at making people better drivers.

There was a slight increase in knowledge that people got. Interestingly, comedy classes had a slight leg up on the information people got out of the class. But the increase in what people know about traffic safety didn’t translate to people actually being better drivers.

So What?

If Bloch’s study more accurately captured the success—or lack of success—at making people like me a better driver, maybe you’re wasting $30 to take a class, but you get to mask the points on your license so your insurance doesn't go up. That’s awesome!

Bloch says not so awesome.

“By systematically masking people's citations, essentially the DMV doesn't know about those drivers who keep getting a lot of tickets and would have their licenses suspended or revoked,” said Bloch.

And failing to get those people off the streets makes our roads are less safe, he says.

In Florida you can only take a class five times in your life to mask a ticket, and only once in any given year. Bloch says that’s the right direction, but doesn’t do enough to deal with the statistical reality he found.

Even though he’s steeped in this research, though, the day he retired he got pulled over for rolling through a stop sign—retirement cake in the back seat.

And Steve Bloch, just like the rest of us,  ponied up, sat down and took the traffic class.