It pays to avoid a speeding ticket -- or fight one

The best advice: don't speed. But if you get nailed, fight it -- because a $50 speeding ticket can cost you thousands once your insurer gets wind of it.

By Chris Solomon Now is a very bad time to have a lead foot.
With the horsepower wars heating up -- even minivans have 250 horsepower these days -- the country's auto-safety regulators are making it a priority to use high-visibility crackdowns and technology such as traffic cameras to target the worst speeders. Speeding is cited as a factor in approximately one-third of all crash-related fatalities, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says.
With federal regulators pressing states to step up their speeding enforcement, lawmakers in Texas, Illinois and California have added surcharges of as much as $30 on top of fines for speeding.
True, a few more bucks won't change your life, but the fine is usually the least of your worries. Even one speeding ticket can begin to turn your name to mud in your insurer's eyes. More than one can cost you thousands of dollars in higher premiums.
Insurance companies say punishing speeders is well warranted: In one study, California drivers with one speeding citation in a three-year period had a crash rate 50% higher, on average, than those with no infractions -- and the crash rate more than doubled for those who had two or more tickets, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute, industry-sponsored research groups.

A ticket from Johnny Law does seem to slow people down, at least for a bit. A study of Ontario traffic statistics, published in the British medical journal the Lancet, found that a conviction for a moving violation cut the risk of a fatal crash in the following month by 35%. The benefit evaporated by four months after the conviction. Assigning penalty points to a driver's license -- especially for speeding tickets -- reduced the risk of fatal crashes more than convictions without penalty points. Keeping your nose clean

Still, as long as running late is an American pastime, people will speed. And there are ways to protect yourself and your premiums. First, reduce your likelihood of getting snagged by the speed gun in these ways:
  • Know thyself. Spend $5 to request your driving record from your state's Department of Motor Vehicles. Is it accurate? Could you face a suspension hearing if you get convicted for one more violation? Then call your insurer. Find out what a slip-up would mean to your rates.

  • Penny-wise = pound foolish. Police will frequently key on an auto that has problems such as broken headlights, taped-over taillights or a missing front license plate. Spend $3 to replace a burned-out license plate bulb and you may save hundreds of dollars later, says Matisyahu Wolfberg, a policeman-turned-traffic defense attorney in New York.

  • Stay incognito, Part I. Driving an arrest-me red sports car doesn't guarantee you'll get pulled over, but it doesn't help avoid police, say defense attorneys. Ditto -- albeit to a lesser degree -- any expensive car. Consider a Camry over a Corvette and you may save money in more than the showroom.

  • Stay incognito, Part II. Ignore the general pace of traffic at your own peril. "You're a pack animal; don't stick out of the pack," says Casey Raskob, a Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., attorney who focuses on traffic-related cases. Passing police cars is verboten. Stay in the right lane when possible.

  • Keep your eyes peeled. Scan your rear-view mirror often while driving. Look for possible spots far ahead where a patrol car could hide. Also, watch how professional truckers drive, and slow down when they do; they've got far more experience detecting Smokey.

  • Don't be sticker shocked. Pasting a Police Benevolent Association sticker to the rear window isn't a license to speed. That jig is long up, says Raskob. Wisecracking bumper stickers -- "Bad Cop; No Donut" -- won't endear you to The Man, either.

The traffic stop and its aftermath

You get pulled over anyway. Now what do you do?
  • Be polite. "Most of the time, the motorist has very little chance. The officer has already has made up his mind," says Wolfberg, the former cop. "The only real chance the driver has is to be nice." Act peeved and a trooper may give you the full fine. Some will also flag the citation with a notation, like "ND" -- a note to a prosecutor or to himself (in some states, law-enforcement officers act as prosecutors in traffic court) to give a loudmouth "no deal" in court.

  • Don't admit guilt. "The absolutely fatal question is, 'Do you know why I stopped you?'" says attorney Mark Sutherland, co-author of the book "Traffic Ticket Defense." Authorities can use any admission of guilt against you when you contest the ticket (see below). For other things to consider during a traffic stop, see hints on the Web site of the National Motorists Association, a drivers' rights group.

  • Once home, don't immediately pay the ticket. Simply paying the fine, an admission of guilt, could cost you dearly in insurance rates. Doubt it? Let's say you're an experienced driver in California with a single-car policy and a good driving record, who is paying the average rates statewide for liability, collision and comprehensive coverage, $765 annually. If you were a Prudential Financial customer you'd get a 25% good-driver discount and pay only $574. One speeding ticket would mean a roughly 27% increase from the base premium, says Prudential's Laurita Warner -- a $207 annual increase, or $621 more over three years. (Surcharges usually last for three years.)

Get a second minor conviction and your premium would rise an additional 40%, and you'd also lose your good-driver discount, says Warner. Suddenly, a premium that was $574 has ballooned to $1,071. After the third conviction, expect to pay roughly 63% more than you originally did, or $1,247. Over three years you would end up paying $2,020 more than if you'd kept your nose clean, or much more than the fines themselves. Clearly, getting pinched leaves a painful scar.
The pain can be even worse if you're a teenager or young adult. "Getting even one speeding ticket, much less two, can cause a dramatic spike in your insurance rates -- sometimes doubling and even tripling those rates -- and jeopardize your ability to get preferred insurance rates," says Karl Newman, president of the Washington Insurance Council, a consumer education group funded by member insurance companies in Washington State. "That could require you to purchase high-risk insurance."
Luckily, you've got several initial options once busted:
  • Ignoring the ticket isn't one of them. "It used to be if you obtained a ticket in New York, it didn't get back to New Jersey," but that's no longer true, says Raskob. Avoid a ticket and a warrant may be issued for your arrest -- a warrant that appears even on the computer system of your hometown cops.

  • Special state programs. Talk to your state's DMV or local traffic court to find out about ways to erase your ticket. In Rhode Island, for example, if you haven't had any vehicle-related violations in three years and then receive a minor one (for example, for exceeding the speed limit by less than 20 miles an hour), you can ask that the ticket be dismissed. It usually is. In some southern states, authorities will agree to defer judgment, if you don't get any more tickets for the next six months.

  • Traffic school. Often your best alternative is to take a six- to eight-hour safety course for drivers. Policies vary by state, but often a minor speeding conviction can be wiped from your record and therefore go unseen by your employer or insurance company. You'll still have to pay the fine, plus an additional $50 to $80 in tuition and other costs, and invest a Saturday. Some states such as California let drivers take the course online. Traffic school has its limits, however. In some states, it's an option only once every 18 or 24 months. In others, those caught exceeding the speed limit by more than 15 to 20 mph may not be eligible, says David Brown, author of the book "Beat Your Ticket."

Should you go to court?

If the above options aren't available, go to court. Court doesn't have to be a Perry Mason experience. Simply asking for your day in traffic court can save you money. Count the ways:
  • Showing up is half the battle. Only about 3% of all tickets are contested, estimates Brown, which means even a few people showing up to challenge a ticket can jam the system. "A lot of times the courts will change the ticket for you, to encourage you not to go to court" -- sometimes reducing a moving violation to a lesser charge that your insurance company won't penalize you for, says Eric Skrum, spokesman for the National Motorists Association.

  • Cop no-shows. If you show up on your assigned date, defense attorneys say that in 20% to 25% of cases the ticket-writing officer won't. If the officer is required to show up (jurisdictions have different rules), no appearance usually means the ticket is thrown out. No-shows by police happen even more in summer, when even they take vacations.

  • Errors matter (sometimes). While courts will often excuse minor errors on a ticket -- a misspelled name, a quibble over whether your Jag is ochre or orange -- if the officer cites the wrong statute on the ticket, or grossly misidentifies the highway or your make of car, you may to get your ticket dismissed, says Skrum. It's often best to keep mum about the gaffe until you go to court, however, and reveal the mistake after the officer has recounted the wrong information.

  • An 'A' for effort. If you do get all the way to a magistrate or traffic commissioner, any reasonable objection you have to the ticket is likely to at least reduce the amount of the fine, and perhaps change it to an infraction that won't hurt your rates. "You've got to fight every ticket, because the only thing anyone will ever know is what you reduced it to. The accusation will be lost in the courthouse," says Raskob.

The above, "soft" approach often works, but some people prefer to aggressively contest the ticket, which they usually do with at least some success. When Michael Pelletier, a 32-year-old computer systems engineer in the Bay Area, got a ticket a few years ago, he rented the nine-pound (!) legal defense kit from the National Motorists Association. (The rental cost of the packet, which is tailored to the requester's state, is $50 per month, with a discount for NMA members.)

"The only thing I did was crank the legal crank," says Pelletier. That meant asking for continuances and requesting records -- proof of when the officer's radar gun was last calibrated and when the officer was trained in its use -- in hopes of finding a flaw in the authorities' case, or simply wearing them down until they offered a deal. A pre-emptive strike

Battling in court can be time-consuming and complicated. Pelletier estimates he invested nearly 50 hours in the year 2000 to fight his ticket, which he received driving his motorcycle 47 miles an hour in a 25 mph zone. He got it dismissed seven months later based on an esoteric legal definition of a "local street or road."
In Pelletier's eyes, the struggles are worthwhile despite the time commitment. He has also helped his wife and brother keep three citations from their records, and his insurance company recently upgraded him to a "superior" driver, which means he will pay $70 less in the next six months than he had been paying. And by keeping his driving record clean he's ensured that his next ticket -- if it sticks -- won't hurt him so much as it might have.
If you don't have the time to do all of this research, consider hiring an attorney who frequently deals with speeding tickets. Such an attorney will know how to get the best deal for you and can often appear in court for you, so you don't have to take a day off to do so. Fees can vary from $75 to $750, in part depending on whether they're already frequently in the courthouse dealing with such matters.
The free piece of advice they give, however, is the same: Confront your speeding ticket, even if it's your first, and do your darnedest to make it disappear. After all, they add, you never know when you'll get your next one, with higher premiums close behind.
Christopher Solomon is a free-lance writer in Seattle. A former reporter for the Seattle Times, he writes regularly for the New York Times, and has written for Outside magazine, Ski and Skiing magazines and Men's Journal. His work will appear in 2006 Best American Travel Writing.

It pays to avoid a speeding ticket -- or fight one - MSN Money