Traffic lawbreakers who want to reduce their fines can choose from among 400 "traffic schools" with just about every imaginable approach to teaching.
Vittum's joke may not get more than a chuckle from the group, but he can be confident that his audience won't head for the exits -- they're not your average bunch of Friday night revelers. The group consists of speeders, stoplight-runners and drivers who've broken other traffic laws. And the venue isn't a comedy club -- it's the Improv Comedy Traffic Schools of Florida, where Vittum is the chief instructor.
After paying $34 and sitting through four hours of jokes interwoven with some basic traffic reminders, members of the audience get a slight discount on their traffic fines, no points added to their licenses and a guarantee that their insurance companies can't raise their auto rates.
"A light-hearted approach keeps them involved," says Vittum. "Laughing helps take the sting out of getting the ticket too."
The state has allowed traffic violators to attend traffic school as an alternative to paying the full penalty since the 1960s. In 1995, Florida deregulated the industry and disbanded a staff of 10 workers who monitored the schools. But the traffic school market really took off in 2000, when the state allowed the courses to be conducted online. Since then, the number of registrations has jumped to 650,000 -- a 50% increase. Meanwhile, the number of traffic schools offering the courses has swelled from 77 to around 400.
That translates into a heavily fragmented Florida business sector competing for about $20 million a year in revenue. Profit margins are growing with the online versions, which allow a school to operate with almost no employees. "Some of them are just a guy sitting in an apartment with a computer and a website," says Brandon Cintron, office manager of Go Driving School in Longwood, one of the state's best-known courses. "They come and go."
Florida officials don't even try to monitor each school, requiring only that each one use state-approved education material. Whether it's comedy, photographs and illustrations, or plain-spoken questions and answers, the courses must instruct on everything from the shape of road signs to signaling for turns. The standards and requirements are the same for all students -- no matter what the offense.
Schools pass along names of those who complete the course successfully to the state and issue certificates that offenders submit when they pay the reduced fines.
Only about 30 companies produce original educational material for the courses, with the rest buying their materials from the core 30. Sandra Lambert, director of drivers licensing at the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in Tallahassee, concedes she doesn't know who they are or where they're located.
To market themselves, schools buy the names of traffic violators for about $25 a month from local circuit court clerks and inundate offenders with a blizzard of postcard solicitations.
The schools typically offer a choice of live, internet or DVD options -- priced around $35 per four-hour session. And as with Vittum's comedy school, most have an angle: Some, like D.O.T.S. Traffic School in Miami, use names that hint at an official affiliation with law enforcement, which they don't have. Some pitch themselves as a bargain -- LowestPriceTrafficSchool.com -- while others, like TheyGotMe.com in Orlando, poke a little fun at the process.
Lambert says the internet courses and DVD versions, which came on the market in 2000, have offered an improvement over live classes, which traffic offenders can "sleep right through." The internet and DVD formats require students to pass written tests, but most of the live classes don't.
With the availability of courses online, the companies that offered live instruction have either disappeared or downsized. Go Driving has dropped its live classes and cut employees in recent years, Cintron says. "There are just three of us now," he says.
For all the increase in registrations, there's room for growth: Only about one Florida driver out of every six ticketed last year signed up for traffic school. Most of the rest simply paid their fines.
Many who are ticketed, however, are ineligible for traffic re-education because of the serious nature of their offenses, such as driving under the influence of alcohol and reckless driving. What's more, drivers are allowed the traffic school option only once a year and five times in their lives.
For traffic offenders, the actual savings off the full price of a traffic ticket is minimal. Completion of the schools gets them an 18% reduction on the "civil penalty" portion of their tickets -- which is typically 80% of the total, the rest being administrative fees. On a $100 speeding ticket, for example, the savings from taking a driving course would be $14.40. "A lot of people don't want to pay $34 for traffic school when they find out they still have to pay most of their fines," says Cintron.
Not having points charged against their license is much more valuable to some. "I have had some other tickets in the past," says Ephrain Cambrone, a 19-year-old college student in Pompano Beach who was recently ticketed for speeding and completed an online course. "Taking the course means not worrying about losing my license."
The biggest appeal to speeders, however, may be avoiding a hike in their insurance rates. Florida law prohibits insurers from raising rates of drivers who are ticketed for moving violations or found at fault in an accident if they then complete traffic school.
But is anyone really learning anything about safer driving? "The information is presented in a sophisticated way, and it made me think about my driving," says Cambrone. Adds Lambert: "Our research shows the courses have been effective." She says traffic lawbreakers who take the courses are less likely to be ticketed again than those who don't.
Among the advice Vittum offers his classes is one unique way to avoid getting a traffic citation. He tells his traffic school students the story of a man who learned that most traffic tickets are received within 25 miles of the driver's home. "So he moved 26 miles away."
Traffic School Leaders
The top five traffic schools (2003-04)
|School||Students||% of Total Students|
|American Safety Council/ATA||224,231||35%|
|Driver Training Associates||111,933||17.3%|
|USA Training Co.||64,409||10.0%|
|American Safety Institute||62,900||9.7%|
|Advanced Driving Skills Institute||36,000||5.6%|