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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
- Everybody was going the same speed. Marcia Cunningham of the
National Traffic Law Center says, "Many times I've heard a judge say,
'The river is full of fish. You can't snag them all.'"
- He's picking on me because I drive a red sports car. This is a
- The radar was wrong. It's possible, but the odds are against
beating a radar-based citation, especially if you don't have the radar
records as evidence and can't point to specific errors the officer made.
- I was going to see my sick [fill in the blank]. This never works
unless the judge dies laughing. Even then, the case would probably be
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.