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Drivers Singing Traffic School Blues : Law: Cash-strapped state requires full fine, plus usual fee, to be paid by those who attend classes. Cost now exceeds simply paying ticket.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So you just got one of those $271 tickets for driving without passengers in the car-pool lane, but you figure you’ll cut your losses by going to traffic school.

Guess again.

Under new state budget-balancing laws that took effect Aug. 1, traffic violators must pay their tickets, plus an extra $24 administrative fee, in order to go to traffic school. And that’s not counting the roughly $25 that the schools charge.

As a result, it now costs more to go to traffic school and have the citation erased from your record than it does simply to pay off the ticket.

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The new laws also include sharp increases, about 15% to 25%, in the cost of all traffic tickets. In addition, the formerly free “fix-it” tickets--those irritating warnings that you must have something repaired or replaced on your car--now cost $10.

The changes are being met with more than the usual grumbling and groaning at local traffic courts.

“I think it’s a rip-off,” groused Ken Hoefer, 27, as he waited in line at South Bay Municipal Court to pay a speeding ticket. “It would be best if (state legislators) quit giving each other pay raises. They take enough out of your paycheck as it is already.”

One angry woman went from a satellite court in Redondo Beach to the Torrance courthouse to complain about having to pay so much to go to traffic school, clerks said. After yelling at a string of supervisors, the woman finally calmed down when clerks discovered that she did not have to pay the full amount because her ticket was issued before Aug. 1.

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“She wasn’t a real happy camper,” said principal traffic clerk Cheryl Bond. “But there are some tickets that we’re still taking the old way. It depends on when the ticket is entered into the computer.”

Tickets issued in late July are being handled several different ways, depending on how the violator decides to pay, which courthouse is handling it and whether the local traffic judge has decided to make the new laws retroactive.

In the South Bay, for example, mailed notices for citations issued in late July tell violators that they must mail in the full amount of the ticket, which averages $100, plus the $24 administrative fee to sign up for traffic school.

But if that same violator goes to the South Bay Municipal Court window to pay the fine on a ticket from late July, clerks there require only the $24 administrative fee to sign up for traffic school.

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If the ticket was issued after Aug. 1, there is no way to avoid paying the full amount.

To cope with agitated citizens, clerks say they bite their tongues and try to remain polite.

“They can’t yell at the judge and they can’t yell at the police officer, so they yell at me,” said Lanelle Meyer-Lucero, 20, a deputy clerk in the South Bay office. “I’m caught in the middle.”

The people most difficult to handle are those who have been to traffic school before and refuse to believe that the rules have changed, despite several signs announcing the new laws.

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“They say, ‘No, no, you’ve got it wrong. It’s only $24,’ ” Meyer-Lucero said. “And I have to keep pointing at the sign, over and over again.”

Traffic school operators are equally upset by the new laws. Because about one-quarter of all traffic school students have enrolled simply to avoid paying their citations, operators say business has dropped off dramatically over the past two weeks.

“Our calls are way down,” said Marlene Galewick, co-owner of All-American Traffic Violator School in Whittier. “People are shopping around and they’re not signing up. . . . I’m going to go out of business if we don’t figure out a way to pick up here.”

Galewick said she hopes more drivers will realize that traffic school can prevent insurance premiums from skyrocketing by erasing a citation from the record.

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“In this business, a running joke used to be that one act of the Legislature could put us out of business,” Galewick said. “But we didn’t think it would really happen.”

Vern Hensel, president of the Traffic School Assn. of California, said his group lobbied against the new legislation and had struck a compromise with lawmakers that would have required motorists to pay only half the ticket amount.

But the legislators rejected the compromise at the last minute and voted to require full payment.

“We did not have enough clout or sympathy to do anything about it,” Hensel said. “We know what the impact is going to be. About 25% of the people in traffic school were there because it was cheaper (than paying the ticket). Many of those don’t have insurance, so they don’t worry about rates going up. That market is being wiped out completely.”

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Hensel said he believes more people will decide to fight their tickets, requiring police officers to spend more time in traffic court, increasing the caseload that judges must handle and further slowing an already beleaguered court system.

Newer traffic schools and substandard ones probably will be forced out of business, Hensel said.

“We don’t think it’s very pro-education. We’re the only post-licensing training program out there,” he said. “In the past, we were rewarding people for trying to better themselves by going to traffic school. Now, by trying to better yourself, you’re going to be penalized.”


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