Fines, License Suspensions and Traffic School
The consequences of a traffic ticket can be serious. Learn when you may face a stiff fine, traffic school, higher insurance premiums or even the suspension of your driver's license.

In every state, only those convicted of the more serious traffic violations -- such as drunk or reckless driving -- face the possibility of going to jail. State laws do not allow a judge to impose a jail sentence for speeding or failure to stop at a signal. Even where laws do give a judge the discretionary power to jail a traffic offender (sometimes a repeat offender), he will very rarely choose to exercise it. But the other consequences of not contesting a ticket, or fighting and being found guilty, can be serious. As you doubtless know, you can face a stiff fine, traffic school, significantly higher insurance premiums and possibly even the suspension of your driver's license.

A routine ticket for speeding, failure to yield, or failure to stop at a stop sign will normally cost you between $75 and $300, depending on your state law and sometimes your driving record. If the fine isn't written or printed on the ticket, it's easy to learn the amount by calling the traffic court. States normally have standard fines for particular violations, based on the type of offense. In speeding cases, the fine can be based on how much you exceeded the posted speed limit. Some states can also set the fine based, at least in part, on whether you have other recent violations.

Because it's expensive for the state if you fight your ticket, courts place hurdles in the way of people who insist on a court hearing, while establishing "no muss, no fuss" options to pay your fine (often called "forfeiting bail"). But while paying up may be easy, it can have lasting negative consequences since the violation will appear on your driving record, normally for about three years. The big exception to this rule is if you pay the fine in conjunction with going to traffic school. Completion of traffic school normally means the ticket will not appear on your record.

Insurance Rates
Depending on your state law and your insurance company policies, your auto insurance rates will normally not increase if you receive one ordinary moving violation over three to five years. But two or more moving violations -- or a moving violation combined with an at-fault accident -- during the same time period might result in an increase in your insurance bill. Unfortunately, because insurance companies follow different rules when it comes to raising the rates of policyholders who pay fines or are found guilty of a traffic violation, it's not always easy to know whether it makes sense to fight a ticket.

Before you can make an informed choice as to whether to pay, go to traffic school or fight, it makes sense to find out whether having the ticket on your record will result in your insurance rates being upped. The most direct approach is to call your insurance company and ask. The problem with this approach is that it risks alerting your insurer that you have been ticketed (something you don't want to do if you hope to successfully fight it or go to traffic school). One approach is to call your insurer anonymously and suggest you are considering switching insurance companies and want to gather information on a range of key issues, such as their criteria for good driver discounts and premium increases when covered drivers get ticketed.

License Suspensions
You won't lose your license for one or usually even two tickets for a routine moving violation like speeding, running a stoplight or stop sign, or many other garden-variety traffic scrapes. That is unless you are under 18 years of age, where you could lose your driving privileges in some states.

If you are over 18 years of age and have had at least three previous convictions for moving violations in the past three to five years, you could lose your license (parking violations don't count). If you are charged with drunk, reckless or hit-and-run driving, and have several previous convictions for moving violations, you can be pretty sure your right to continue to hold your license is in jeopardy.

In most states, suspensions are handled on a point system with a license at risk of being pulled if a driver gets three or more tickets in a short period. Check exact rules with your state's Department of Motor Vehicles. Obviously, if you face losing your license, your incentive to fight a ticket goes way up no matter what your chances of winning.

How Point Systems Work
A "point" system assigns a certain number of points for each moving violation. A driver who gets too many points in too short a time loses his license. In some states, points are also assessed for accidents, even if no court has found you to be at fault. While the details vary from state to state, most systems typically work like this:

No matter what type of point system is used, you are typically entitled to a hearing in front of a Motor Vehicle Bureau hearing officer before your license can be revoked. At that hearing it is often a good idea to explain why at least some of the violations were the result of mistakes by the ticketing officer, but for some good reason you didn't fight the ticket. It also helps to explain the specific steps you've taken to drive more carefully and safely since the violations.

In states that assess points for accidents, this may be your first opportunity to show the accident wasn't your fault, was difficult to avoid or was not part of an ongoing pattern of bad driving. Be prepared to do just that. Also, tell the hearing officers if it is essential that you commute to work or actually drive for your job, particularly if you will lose your job if you lose your license. Finally, if you drive 15,000 miles a year or more, you should mention this as well. Argue that since you drive more than average, your chances of getting tickets or having an accident are also above average.

The Traffic School Option
Almost every state allows a person ticketed for some types of moving violations to attend a 6-to-8 hour course in traffic safety in exchange for having the ticket officially wiped from their record. Often attending traffic school is your best choice, even if you think you have a watertight defense. After all, while a trial is always something of a gamble, traffic school is 100% reliable in keeping the violation off your record. (As long as you remember to set your alarm clock, of course, and make it to the class.)

Policies on allowing you to eliminate a ticket from your record by going to traffic school vary from state to state. (They can also occasionally vary within a state, where local courts have some discretion to set their own policies.) For example, in some states you can attend traffic school once a year, while in others you must wait 18 to 24 months before you can eliminate a new ticket with a new trip to traffic school. And in some states, you aren't eligible for traffic school if you're ticketed for exceeding the speed limit by more than 15 or 20 miles per hour.

Procedures for getting into traffic school also vary from place to place. Most courts allow you to sign up through the court clerk, but a few require that you appear before a judge to make your request. How a traffic school attendee's ticket is handled is also different in different areas. For example, in some states, courts dismiss your case when proof is received that you've completed traffic school. In other states, courts require you to pay your fine (forfeit bail) with the understanding that the conviction will not be placed on your record if you complete traffic school by a prearranged deadline. Under this system you must pay twice -- once for the fine and again for the school.

In brief outline, for those who are eligible, the advantages of attending traffic school are as follows:

The disadvantages of traffic school include:
  In some states, erasing a ticket through traffic school may be accomplished while sitting at home. For example, California is just one of a number of states where traffic courts authorize Internet-based traffic schools (they use tests and other devices to be sure you are paying attention). This trend is almost sure to spread. But be sure to check with the court in your particular area to make sure that an Internet-based program is acceptable. Do not pay any money to the traffic school unless you are sure that the court accepts that particular school's program.