Call me dull, but I honestly do like to poke along. Driving through the high plains of New Mexico one winter day, though, I apparently missed a 40 mph sign where a lonesome highway ducked between buildings before re-emerging into open sky.
Moments later, two officers stood by my pickup, eyeing my out-of-state plates with a bit more satisfaction than seemed appropriate.
"You can pay the $60 now, or" -- and here, the older officer actually smiled -- "show up at the court date next month."
I was tempted to pay. It was only $60.
But it's a good thing I didn't. If I was thinking the ticket was only $60, then I was thinking wrong. The real cost of a ticket always comes later, when your car insurance company finds out. Most people know that.
But do you know how much a ticket can ultimately cost while it taints your record anywhere from three to six years?
Multiply that ticket by 30
I talked my way out of that New Mexico ticket. The speed trap seemed unfair and I was in a talkative mood.
I wasn't aware that a single ticket could have cost me my safe-driver discount and jacked up my premium by 15 percent, or $372 over the next six years, more than six times the speeding fine.
But that's nothing. My auto insurance rates are already well below average; I have an old beater that spends most of its time in the driveway. And my home state -- like several other states and some insurers -- ignores the first infraction.
What happened to a family member may be more typical. He already had one ticket on the family policy, but with two drivers, they doubled their risk of a second infraction. When his wife rolled through a stop sign, the other shoe dropped.
A 30 percent surcharge kicked in, and it set them back the price of a used car: $4,000 over six years -- 32 times the amount of the $125 rolling-stop ticket.
"That doesn't sound unreasonable. That sounds about right," says Ted Hollander, a lawyer who has defended drivers in traffic court for 14 years. His firm, The Ticket Clinic, makes its business not because people want to evade the fines, but because they can't afford the 40, 50, or even 100 percent hike in their auto insurance premiums.
"That's why hiring a lawyer, paying him $150, is the deal of the century," he says.
More tickets, more accidents?
The insurance industry has good reason to be wary of leadfoots.
Traffic accidents cost the industry tens of billions of dollars annually, and its analysts agree that drivers with traffic violations are more likely to be in accidents. Nearly one-third of fatal accidents in the United States are due to speeding, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration."If we ignore that, and all of our competitors don't, then we're writing policies for the people who do tend to violate traffic laws that are (priced) too low," says Dick Luedke, spokesman for State Farm, the nation's largest auto insurer.
Not everyone thinks the insurance industry's formula is fair, though.
Do motorists who get tickets have accidents because they're unsafe drivers? Or are the same motorists -- those who put in many miles -- likely to both get more tickets and be in more accidents?
"Many of these violations are not predictive of the quality of driving," says Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, a membership-based drivers' rights organization. "Your premium gets jacked up generally 20 percent over the next three years, at least, and it's almost entirely profit for the insurance company because they don't have the risk of the future claim."
After all, you're far more likely to be careful once you've been nabbed.
How to get pulled over for speeding
Let's say I'd paid instead of pleaded on that New Mexico roadside. Had I run into a second speed trap -- not unlikely given my daily mileage in unfamiliar terrain -- my rates would have shot up 40 percent for the next six years, costing a total of $1,026, according to a few what-if conversations with my very patient insurance agent.
Scary, but that doesn't mean flashing lights should spark panic.
- Pull over as soon as you can, but don't block a lane or stop suddenly. Make sure there is space for the police vehicle to stop safely as well.
- Turn off your car. Keep your hands visible. At night, turn on the interior light.
- Don't argue with the police officer, but don't admit guilt. Belligerence never helps. (The officer said he let me off with a warning because I was "respectful and nice.")
- Call your insurance company. Ask how the ticket would affect your rates, and for how long. Every company will have its own rules. "Just to blindly go in and pay a traffic ticket without knowledge of the long-term consequences is a poor decision," Hollander says. "A person owes it to themselves to get some advice."
- Contact a traffic lawyer. Lawyers know the intricacies of police equipment and its operation, and stand a far greater chance of winning your case than you do. In some areas, they may also know whether it's possible to pay without getting points on your record.
In New York, leaving the scene of a minor accident will net you three points, reckless driving will net you five points. But speeding by 31 to 40 mph over the limit will land you 8 points. If you're going 41 mph over the limit, you'll get hit with 11 points right off the bat. That's one strike, you're out.
"I recommend fighting every traffic ticket, even if it's a small ticket," says traffic attorney Matthew Weiss of 888RedLight in New York. "The repercussions get exponentially worse."
Traffic lawyers often say they will work for less than the cost of the ticket itself. The Ticket Clinic typically charges $150 to $250 per case.