When you see flashing lights in your rearview mirror, take a deep breath. The next few minutes could make all the difference when your next insurance bill arrives.
State troopers and police officers have 100 percent discretion. They can write you a ticket, or they can give you a warning. They can write down exactly what their radar gun shows, or they can write down a number that will lower your fine and reduce the number of points on your license.
If you have been pulled over, your immediate fate is in the officer's hands -- and so are your future insurance premiums.
A speeding ticket that qualifies as reckless driving in your state is the single worst traffic violation you can inflict on your insurance bill, according to data gathered by Insurance.com, with premiums rising an average of 22 percent. But knocked down to 14 mph or less over the limit, that hit falls to 11 percent.
Of course, the best way to keep your insurance from going up at all is to keep the ticket off your record in the first place.
To increase your chances of a receiving a warning rather than a ticket:
- Make it an easy stop -- Pull over quickly, turn your interior lights on and keep your hands in sight on the wheel. When an officer approaches a vehicle, says Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Scott Bright, he or she will be looking at how many people are in the car and where their hands are.
- Be respectful -- If you were looking for a way to ensure a ticket, being argumentative, angry or rude would be a great way to do it. "There is no guarantee that a driver will receive a warning based upon behavior," says Colorado State Patrol Capt. Jeff Goodwin, "but it certainly helps to be respectful and less confrontational."
- Save the excuses - Law enforcement officers have heard them all, so save your sob story. Answers to any questions should be brief and noncommittal. (For example, if the officer asks if you know why you've been pulled over, say no, legal experts advise.) Don't argue. This isn't a court.
Here is why you should bite your tongue.
"Every year," says Goodwin, "the CSP (Colorado State Patrol) issues many more warnings than citations."
In 2010, the Chicago Sun Times looked at the tickets written by the Lake County Illinois Sheriff's Department and found huge differences between officers. One officer issued only warnings, while another was responsible for 90 percent of the tickets written.
Perspectives often change as troopers gain experience.
Bright recalls that as a young Iowa trooper he frequently gave drivers a break on speed, but after 22 years on the road he now writes tickets for the exact speed. "Without fail it would be the drivers I gave a break that were the ones that would go to court," he says.
Anything above 80 mph is de facto reckless driving in Hawaii, North Carolina and Virginia. That threshold is 100 mph in California and Minnesota. A few mph one way or the other means the difference between a fine and losing your license to suspension. (See "The 100-mph ticket.")
If you were polite, honest and kept your hands on the wheel but still got a ticket, remember that the law and statistics are on the officer's side. According to the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration, 32,880 people died in traffic accidents in 2010. Speeding caused 32 percent of those deaths.
When to fight, when to shop
Once you've been stopped for speeding, there are several possible outcomes: a warning, a ticket that cuts you a break, or a full-fledged, license-denting traffic violation. You still have options even after the officer has handed you the ticket and told you to have a nice day.
The National Motorists Association (NMA) estimates that less than 5 percent of drivers go to court. Spokesperson John Bowman says not fighting a ticket is a mistake. "Drivers will almost always come out ahead," he says, "either with a full dismissal or at least a lower penalty." (See "Fight an insurance-busting traffic ticket.")
You can also go for deferred adjudication, a deal that prevents the conviction from appearing on your motor vehicle record. (See "Keep your license clean and your insurance cheap.")
But once the conviction is on your record, there is little you can do to lower your insurance rates except shop for a different insurance company, says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst with CarInsurance.com.
"Insurance companies rate tickets differently," Gusner says, "and while your current one may raise your rates 10 percent, another one may not rate on just one minor offense or surcharge you only 5 percent for it."
A minor ticket might not warrant an increase in your premium. But you could lose your good driver discount; in some states that could bring a 20 percent rise in your insurance bill.