Beat a speeding ticket to keep your rates down
A hefty fine may be only the beginning if you get nailed for speeding: Your insurer can slap a surcharge on your policy that could run for years.
By Ed Henry and Ronaleen R. Roha, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Ivan Sever, a professor at Berklee College of Music, heard nothing melodious in the siren that pulled him over on a little country road outside of Boston. And he was nonplussed when the officer told him he was speeding as he drove his 12-year-old daughter, Alison, to ballet class."But no speed limit is posted," Sever said from behind the wheel of his Suzuki SUV. "Tell it to a judge," the officer shot back.

And that's what Sever did.

He demanded a trial to challenge the notion that motorists should somehow divine the speed limit based on the density of the population. To prepare, Sever invested $29 in a membership with the National Motorists Association, a group based in Waunakee, Wis., that helps drivers fight for their rights.

"I did my homework," says Sever. But he needn't have worried. "The policeman never showed up," adds Sever, "so the judge dismissed the case."

His record is clean, and his insurance company never heard about the ticket.

Take a little effort
Even if you are caught dead to rights with a lead foot, don't automatically pay the ticket. With a little effort, you may beat the double whammy of paying the fine and paying higher premiums on your auto insurance policy.

Just ask the Maryland man who found himself before a judge pleading "guilty with explanation." It seems that a protest against China's repression of the Falun Gong had created a hopeless traffic jam as he tried to pick up his daughter at camp. Once traffic opened up, his foot went down, and a cop pulled him over.

As proof of his predicament, the man handed the judge an article about the protest. "You're invoking the Falun Gong defense?" the judge asked sardonically. "I don't care what your excuse is, mister, you've got to slow down."

But then the judge gave him a special incentive to put his foot on a diet. The driver was given "probation before judgment." If he keeps his record clean for a year, it'll be as if the whole thing never happened. There's no record for his insurer to use to jack up his rates. The speeder paid more than $100 in fines and court costs but figures he saved hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars by avoiding insurance surcharges.

Don't judge yourself
No one keeps an exact count of how many speeding tickets are issued each year, but one estimate puts the number at about 14 million. Most of those nabbed admit their guilt and either pay a fine or take advantage of a re-education program to mitigate or erase the effect of the ticket. Only about 3% of ticketed drivers head to court to challenge the ticket and try to beat the rap.

But more of them should, says Chad Dornsife, a lobbyist and head of the Nevada chapter of the National Motorists Association. One estimate suggests that more than 50% of contested speeding tickets result in dismissal, a reduced fine or a finding in the driver's favor.

Considering the long-term financial consequences, you should not treat a speeding ticket lightly. Although you won't face jail time unless your offense is more serious (say, reckless driving), you can put your license in jeopardy by piling up tickets. Most states suspend or revoke the license of a chronic offender, and violations generally stay on your record for about three years. But even an occasional ticket can have "amazing economic impact," says Geoffrey Nathan, a lawyer in Boston who specializes in fighting speeding tickets.

The financial fallout begins with the fine. Depending on where you push the pedal to the metal, the fine can range from $5 to $1,000. In Massachusetts, for example, the minimum is $50 for speeds up to 10 miles an hour over the limit, plus $10 for every excess mile per hour. In California, you'll pay up to $100 for a first offense, $200 for the second and $250 for each ticket after that. Fines in many states are automatically doubled in school or work zones.

For many drivers, though, the biggest pocketbook hit comes not from the judge but from the insurance company. A speeding ticket can drive up premiums for three to five years. Some insurers do ignore your first ticket. Dick Ludkee, a spokesman for State Farm, says that drivers who enjoy the company's best rates generally won't be penalized for a single speeding ticket. But one ticket makes a difference with other companies.

To see the devastating impact speeding tickets can have, consider a single-car policy in Massachusetts. A typical policy with liability, collision and comprehensive coverage starts out at $1,549 a year. The first speeding ticket wipes out a $123 good-driver discount. A second triggers a $370 rate hike; a third boosts the rate $565 over the $1,549 base. In effect, three tickets trigger a "fine" from the insurer of $565 a year, or $2,825 over five years -- far higher than the official fine imposed by the state. Wherever you live, it's likely your insurer will ratchet up the surcharges as you rack up tickets. So the stakes get higher each time you're pulled over.

If you are ticketed, use the two weeks you're generally given before you must take action to do some research. Police officers, even with radar, can make mistakes. There may be mitigating circumstances, such as speeding up to avoid a potential accident caused by another driver's erratic behavior.

All laws are not equal
Also, realize that all speed laws are not created equal. David Brown, a lawyer in Monterey, Calif., and author of '”Beat Your Ticket: Go to Court and Win,” notes that the District of Columbia and 32 states -- including Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania -- have absolute speed limits. Drive even one mile per hour over the limit and you're breaking the law.

Most drivers assume there is some leeway. And in reality, there is. John Moffat, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, concedes that driving seven to eight miles over the posted limit on a highway generally won't get you pulled over. The results of a recent study in New Jersey seem to support that view: Over 36 months, 85% of the traffic on 65-mph roads was traveling at 74 mph. Clearly, the police can't, and don't, pick up everyone going over the limit.

George Hartwell, a California Highway Patrol spokesman, says, "If you exceed the limit by a few miles per hour, the officer has discretion." But don't push your luck. CHP lieutenant Wayne Bridges says 98% of officers will cite you for traveling 15 mph or more over the limit. In the New Jersey study, 81% of tickets were given to drivers doing less than 20 mph over the limit.

Kentucky, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Texas have presumed speed limits. If you are clocked going 50 mph in a 40-mph zone, it is only presumed that you were speeding. If you can persuade the judge that your speed was safe given the conditions, you may get off. Other states -- including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Montana and Ohio -- have a combination of absolute limits for interstates and larger state roads and presumed speed limits for other roads.

Check your options
Read both sides of the ticket. It will probably outline a number of ways you can proceed, from writing a check to going to court to fight. The middle ground may include taking a safe-driving course; if you complete the course, the ticket won't go on your record. Such a course can cost from $40 to more than $100 (on top of any fine you may have to pay) and typically lasts four to eight hours. In some states, including California and Florida, you can take the course online. There is a limit, however, on how often you can use this option to protect your record; once every 12 to 24 months is typical.

As in the case of the Maryland man cited earlier, judges may have the authority to keep a ticket off your record and away from insurers if you fulfill certain obligations. These may include paying the fine and court costs; avoiding violations for, say, six months to a year; and possibly performing community service or attending a driver's safety school. You can use such an option only once in three years in North Carolina (for a whole household), and once in seven years in Washington. But if you hold up your end of the bargain, the ticket disappears. Florida will forgive one moving violation a year -- and up to five in a lifetime. To keep your record clean in the Sunshine State, you must pay a fine, court costs and go to traffic school.

If such options are not available, you may still be able to limit the damage by plea-bargaining. Request a court date to present your case -- perhaps to show that your speedometer was faulty -- and then ask the prosecutor for a deal. To avoid clogging the docket, a prosecutor may offer to reduce the fine and points, especially for first-time violators, says former New York prosecutor Marcia Cunningham of the National Traffic Law Center.

Before you decide how much effort to go to, call your insurer to see how the ticket could affect your rates. The more severe the consequences, the more important it is to take advantage of ways to hold down the damage.

Do it yourself?
You don't really need to consult with a lawyer if you're going to ask for a deferral or a reduction in your fine or points, or if you want to see if you can work out a deal with prosecutors. You can normally handle those kinds of matters at an informal meeting with a judge, hearing officer or prosecutor. And if you think that your case is a strong one, you can plead not guilty and even go to trial on your own.

Traffic courts are relatively informal as far as courts go. Most jurisdictions treat speeding tickets as petty criminal offenses, with no right to a jury trial. Other places treat tickets as civil offenses. In either case, if the officer doesn't show up in court, you almost always win. (In some places, though, the officer doesn't have to be there.)

In many jurisdictions, you have a broad right to ask for the officer's notes, records about the radar unit used and other information to help prepare your case. If you can get this information, look for discrepancies in the description of your car's make and color; the lane you were in; road, traffic and weather conditions; and where the officer was when he tagged you. "If you can raise doubt, you can win," says Judge Peter Evans, head of the Florida traffic-adjudication program.

One good source of information about the system and procedures is the clerk of the court with jurisdiction over your case. Other good resources include Brown's book, other books from legal self-help publisher Nolo Press, and for state speed laws, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

You can also get a packet of materials on how to fight a speeding ticket from the National Motorists Association. The packet rents for $30 for one month; you'll also need a $155 deposit, which you get back when you return the materials.

If all this sounds like too much work, you can hire a lawyer for anywhere from $300 to $1,000 or more (if you go to trial). Be sure to get one familiar with the traffic laws and practices where you were ticketed.

Don’t try these excuses
Martin Kron, a former judge turned traffic lawyer in New York City, muses over a case that came up in his court. A fellow who was representing himself on a speeding violation called his mother as a witness. She testified that her son had been bringing her a set of family-heirloom china. Since the china arrived without a scratch, the mother explained, her son couldn't possibly have been speeding. Here are some other gems that won't work:
Do you know why I pulled you over?
If a patrol car pulls up behind you with lights flashing, the key to the next few minutes is keeping things safe for you and the officer. Slow down and carefully pull over to the right shoulder, making sure to use your turn signal.

If you are uncomfortable stopping in a relatively unpopulated or unlighted area, slow down, turn on your hazard lights and indicate by a hand signal that you are going up ahead. Then pull over as soon as you get to a more populated area. Police officers understand this concern.

If it's nighttime, turn on your dome light once you have stopped. Stay in the car, unless you are told to get out. "It's a challenge to the officer when you get out," says Rich Whitcomb, director of driver training for the American Automobile Association.

Roll down the window and keep your hands in view on the steering wheel. If you have to get your driver's license, registration or insurance card from the glove box, a purse or other enclosed area, tell the officer before you do it.

In an ordinary speeding case, the decision whether to issue a warning or a citation is left to the discretion of the police officer, who has probably already made up his mind. Be polite, but don't volunteer any information. "The officer is going to try to get you to say you were speeding," says Eric Skrum of the National Motorists Association, a motorist-advocacy group. "If you admit guilt, it will go in his notes and be used against you if you go to court."

When asked if you know why you were stopped, do not commit yourself. Just say something like, "I'm not sure." If the officer says you were speeding, respond with, "I see," or say nothing. Silence doesn't equal an admission of guilt, nor does signing the ticket. You are simply acknowledging receipt of a copy of the ticket.

If you are pulled over out-of-state, don't assume that paying the ticket promptly will prevent the infraction from being reported to your home state -- even if the officer suggests that that's the case. Just about all states share information about driving infractions.