Think of it as working ahead for extra credit: In some states, you can soften the blow of your next ticket before the cop even pulls you over.
Massachusetts, for instance, gives those with three years of clean driving a one-point break on their next violation. Virginia automatically cuts one demerit point for each year of ticket-free driving, and careful motorists can accrue points that may be applied to future tickets.
Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles offers this scenario, starring the usually careful "Molly:"
"For five years Molly followed all the safe driving rules and always obeyed the speed limit. She accumulated a safe driving point each year, for a total of five points. But, one day Molly ran a red light. DMV assigned four demerit points to her driving record. However, since she had earned five safe driving points, she ended up with one safe driving point left on her record."
"It rewards those who become better drivers and helps us find unsafe drivers in advance, before they cause serious problems. We want to make sure you're a better driver and our highways are safer for everyone," says Virginia DMV spokeswoman Melanie Stokes. "It's really about as simple as that."
Authorities assess points as a negative indicator of your worthiness to drive, which is seen as a privilege. Based on a point total, a driver's license can be suspended or revoked. The amount of points given for each violation varies from state to state; reckless driving, for instance, will saddle you with five points in New York, while Wisconsin adds six points for the same infraction.
Of course, most motorists don't think about points until they've racked up a few, and then they worry as much about their car insurance rates as they do about their driver's licenses. There are only two ways to take the sting out of a ticket: a long period of violation-free driving and traffic school.
How states treat driver's license points
If you've already got a few points, traffic school can keep you from racking up a license suspension or veering into "driver responsibility fees"--where states levy hundreds, even thousands of dollars in fees on bad drivers.
Virginia and a few other states offer "driver improvement clinics." Bad motorists take these courses either voluntarily or under orders from the DMV or a traffic judge. Stokes points out that the Virginia DMV will trim as many as five demerits for completing the eight-hour class provided by private, DMV-approved firms. You can take the class and qualify for point reduction once every two years.
Here are a few examples of how other states approach points:
- In North Carolina, you're assigned to a driver improvement clinic by the court or a "driver license hearing officer" after accumulating seven points. Three points are deducted after completing the course. Drivers can also voluntarily participate in a clinic once every five years to drop the three points. A driver license hearing officer reviews class results and determines if the points are cut.
- In Pennsylvania, drivers must take an approved training course after hitting six points on their record. But the good news is that two points are stripped from their record after course completion. Beyond the class, three points are removed for every 12 consecutive months (from the date of the last violation) a motorist is violation-free.
- Utah subtracts half of your accumulated points if you drive safely for a full year. If you drive without a moving violation for two straight years, all points are removed. Points are automatically removed three years after the violation.
- In New York, you can take a Point and Insurance Reduction Program (PIRP) course to subtract four points from your record. Points associated with a violation are automatically removed after 18 months.
- California automatically subtracts the demerit points for a violation after three years of safe driving. As with many states, driver classes are offered to remove a specific violation from your record shortly after receiving a ticket, but the state does not have a catch-all program similar to Virginia's driver improvement clinics.
(For more on what's available where you live, visit your state's department of motor vehicles.)
Why car insurance companies care about points
But it's not the points that erase your opportunity for the cheapest car insurance, really; it's the conviction itself.
Even in places that allow drivers to remove points from their driver's license records, the conviction can remain for your insurer to see and base its rates on. The key is to use your traffic-school options to keep a conviction off your record in the first place.
The point system is a good one, says Pete Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, because it gives auto insurers insight into who would be a risk. Higher premiums, insurers note, simply reflect the risks they must take on to provide coverage for motorists with problem records.
"In California, the fact that the point from a violation is removed after three years is a good incentive for people to be better drivers," he says, adding that the option to take a driver improvement course is an additional positive.
Stokes also notes that Virginia's point-reduction program helps guarantee motorists are insured when they take to its highways. The logic is simple: Some drivers may drop coverage, even though it's illegal to do so, when faced with sky-high premiums. If they can lower their points, they lower their car insurance rates.
"You could argue that this keeps more insured drivers on the road," she says. "You brush up your skills, drop points, show that you're responsible and insurance companies are going to look quite favorably on that."