The United States is a country that loves to drive. Although cities such as New York and Washington D.C. have excellent public transportation systems, millions of Americans still drive as part of their daily commute. And even though most drivers are licensed, having passed a written test and a driving exam, many drivers make occasional mistakes, while some openly flout the law. The result is that millions of traffic tickets are issued in the United States every year. With the fines for many tickets costing more than $100, that makes traffic tickets a billion dollar industry. Some critics of the traffic ticket system say that it doesn't ensure safety and only encourages police officers to satisfy ticket "quotas." Even so, tickets are intended as a deterrent and knowing how traffic tickets work is important whether you're fighting a ticket in court or trying to better understand the traffic laws. In this article, we'll look at how traffic tickets work, the different types of offenses and what to do when you're pulled over by a police officer. We'll also pass along some tips on how to avoid tickets and how to contest a ticket in court.
Types of Traffic Offenses
Generally traffic law is broken up into infractions and violations. An infraction is an offense that is not considered a crime and its penalty is a fine. A person who is guilty of an infraction can't be jailed, receive large fines, have a jury trial or a court-appointed lawyer. Most traffic tickets, such as non-moving violations and non-dangerous moving violations, are infractions. Some speeding tickets can still be relatively large, as many states determine the fine based on how many miles per hour beyond the speed limit the offender was driving.
A violation is more severe than an infraction, and though its definition differs between states, it is usually considered a crime. More serious violations are classified as misdemeanor or felony traffic violations. These include DUI, reckless driving, driving without auto insurance and failure to stop at the scene of an accident. Suspects who are charged with a misdemeanor or felony traffic violation have all the normal rights afforded to criminal defendants. They undergo the booking and bail processes and have the right to a jury trial and a court-appointed attorney.
An offender will usually be charged with a misdemeanor or felony if the traffic violation caused, or threatened to cause, injury to a person or property damage. A traffic offense can move from infraction to violation, depending on the circumstances. For example, running a stop sign may only be an infraction, but if running a stop sign results in a pedestrian getting hit, the infraction may be classified as a misdemeanor or even a felony. A felony is a serious crime. If convicted of a felony, at a minimum, you would face a year imprisonment. A felony can also result in a death sentence. Repeat DUI, hit and run and vehicular homicide are all examples of felonies.
Traffic law differs from state to state, so it's important to familiarize yourself with the laws where you live. Still, in most states, there are three basic types of traffic offenses.
- Strict Liability Offenses Whereas many serious crimes require proof of "criminal intent" to convict someone, the only proof needed to convict someone of a strict liability offense is that the person committed the act. Examples of strict liability offenses include driving with a broken or burned-out headlight, making an illegal U-turn, neglecting to yield or use a turn signal or parking in a handicap space without authorization. For most people, the most familiar strict liability offenses are speeding and letting the time on a parking meter expire.
- Moving and Non-moving Violations The names of these types of violations offer a good idea of what they encompass. A moving violation refers to a traffic violation committed by a moving vehicle while a non-moving violation is related to a car that is not in motion. Generally moving violations are considered more severe -- and the fines are higher -- than for non-moving violations because of the potential for an accident or other dangers. Moving violations include running a red light or stop sign, DWI/DUI and speeding. Tickets for non-moving violations are usually for parking violations, such as parking more than 18 inches from a curb, parking in front of a fire hydrant, parking in a no-parking zone or parking beside an expired meter. Illegal vehicle modifications or faulty equipment can also merit a ticket for a non-moving violation. If your window tint is darker than the law allows or if you have illegal lights on you car, a police officer may issue you a ticket. These infractions count as non-moving violations no matter if you received the ticket while parked or after being pulled over by an officer.
Now that we've gone over ticket types and some of the legal facts surrounding traffic tickets, let's consider what to do when you're pulled over by a police officer.
What to Do When You're Pulled Over
The flashing lights of a police car in a rear view mirror fill most motorists with dread. “Am I really being pulled over?” you might wonder. Although no one likes being pulled over, it’s essential to show a police officer that you’re cooperating. From the moment those lights come on, the officer is observing your behavior, and the way you respond may affect whether or not you receive a ticket. So as soon as you see those flashing lights behind you, turn on your right turn signal and pull over to the right as quickly -- but also as safely -- as possible. Again, it’s important to show the officer that you’re cooperating, and by stopping near where the violation occurred, you may have a better sense of what happened. You will also be able to make observations about the area that can help you if you contest the ticket, such as noting an obstructed speed limit sign or that a new yield sign is in place.
Once you have safely pulled over, turn off the engine, roll down your window all the way and place your hands on the steering wheel. If it’s dark, turn on the interior light in your car. Don’t make any sudden movements, and don’t rummage through your belongings looking for your wallet until you are asked for documentation. Remember that law enforcement officers are killed every year while conducting routine traffic stops, so it’s understandable that an officer may treat you with suspicion. Respond accordingly by being cooperative and do not give any cause for alarm.
It’s OK to greet the officer, but it’s wise to wait for the officer to ask you a question. He or she will likely ask for your driver’s license and vehicle registration. It’s important to give the officer these documents when asked and not question why. However, if you are pulled over by an unmarked car or aren’t sure if the person is a police officer, it’s acceptable to wait to roll down your window until the person has identified himself or herself as an officer.
When talking with the officer, don’t admit any guilt. It’s acceptable to give simple “yes” or “no” answers to questions. If an officer decides to give you a ticket, his or her mind is already made up, and it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to argue your way out of it. Anything you say could later be used in court, should you choose to contest the ticket, so be mindful of what you say. Never try to bribe the officer -- this is not only highly unethical but it is also a crime. Also, you can’t pay the officer the fine for your ticket during a traffic stop (tickets are generally paid for through the mail or online), and attempting to do so could be accidentally construed as a bribe.
During a traffic stop, an officer can only search your car if there’s probable cause to believe you’re concealing something illegal or if he or she believes that you are dangerous. Before approaching a motorist he or she has pulled over, an officer usually looks for movement in the front seat , something that would indicate that the driver is attempting to hide something underneath a seat or in a compartment.
If an officer asks you to get out of your car, it’s once again important to cooperate. Once you are out of the car, the officer may pat you down, and if anything illegal or suspicious is found, he or she may then search your car. If your car becomes impounded, it can also be legally searched then.
An officer might ask you to sign your ticket, but depending on state law, you may not have to. Signing a ticket is not an admission of guilt. It just means that you agree to pay the fine or to appear in court.
So let’s say you get a ticket. What’s on the ticket, and what can you do about it? Read on to find out.
Dealing with a Traffic Ticket
What's on a ticket?
A traffic ticket should have the following information on it:
- Color, make, model, registration of vehicle
- Date, time, place of offense
- Violation and meter number if it's a meter violation
- Officer's name and badge number
- Fine schedule
- Notice of ability to have a hearing to contest the ticket (in most cases)
Different jurisdictions have different forms, so the appearance of the ticket and its content may vary slightly. However, if an officer wrote down incorrect information, that may prove useful in a court defense.
If you plead guilty to a traffic charge, you will have to pay the maximum fine and the charge will be on your DMV record for three years. It may be in your best interest to plead guilty, but you can also consult a traffic ticket attorney for advice regarding your case. A fine for a routine moving violation can be $75 to $400. In some states, fines increase if you have a poor driving record or recent tickets for the same offense. For speeding, the fine is generally based on how much you exceeded the speed limit, though fines can be increased or even doubled in school and construction zones. Usually the amount of the fine will be written on the ticket, but you may have to call the local court to learn the exact amount.
Contesting a Ticket in Court
If you're planning on contesting a ticket, it's important to be prepared. Read and study the law under which you're charged. Keep in mind that as a motorist you're required to know the law. Just as you can't say, "I didn't know murder was illegal," it doesn't matter if you claim, "I didn't know crossing a double yellow line was illegal." If possible, take pictures of the area or intersection where you were ticketed. If there were any witnesses, contact them and ask them to testify on your behalf.
When in court, it's best to plead not guilty. Even if you may have broken the law, pleading not guilty means that it can't be proven you committed the act in question. You can also hire an attorney, but most tickets you can defend on your own if you are prepared and have the proper information. If you have an out-of-state ticket and cannot attend the hearing in that state, hiring a lawyer in that jurisdiction can be a great help and possibly prevent you from having to make the trip back to where the ticket was issued. And if you're facing a license suspension or criminal charges, definitely hire a lawyer or request to have one appointed to you if the law allows.
During the pre-trial process known as discovery, you have the right to request the ticketing officer's notes on your traffic stop. Most officers write down notes about each ticket they write, and examining these notes lets you see if they left anything out or if some detail can be disputed. Hopefully you didn't make any incriminating statements or admissions of guilt to the officer when you were pulled over, as these might be recorded in his or her notes.
If you were cited for not having your license on you, this ticket can usually be contested simply by producing a license in court that was valid when the ticket was issued. If the ticket was a subjective determination, such as that you made an "unsafe" turn, you can challenge the officer's observations. Since you will have the opportunity to question the ticketing officer, prepare a list of questions that can cast doubt on his observations or ability to see the scene clearly. Some examples:
- Did you have an unobstructed view of the scene?
- Were there any other cars nearby that looked similar to mine?
Present a diagram of what you think happened and photographs of the scene that show road conditions and any unusual features, such as a stop sign obscured by trees. Such material may help you construct what's known as a mistake of fact defense. A mistake of fact means that you made an honest and reasonable error -- lane lines or crosswalk lines were faded and difficult to see; a new stop sign was placed on a road you frequently travel.
If your traffic violation was actually an attempt to avoid an accident, you can claim a necessity defense. Here are some situations that can be considered part of a necessity defense:
- You had to speed to avoid an out of control or seemingly dangerous vehicle.
- You swerved to avoid hitting a deer or a pedestrian.
Claiming that you lost concentration or got distracted is not a valid necessity defense.
A third type of defense involves claiming your conduct was legally justified. For example, if your car was malfunctioning or making strange noises, and that's why you slowed down significantly on the freeway, a judge may accept that explanation.
If you are found not guilty, the judge will dismiss your ticket and return any fines already paid. If found guilty -- essentially meaning that the ticket is upheld -- you will have to pay the fine and you may have points placed on your license. If the case involves a misdemeanor or a felony, you may also face jail time and other penalties.
Some tickets are almost impossible to contest. Tickets from red light cameras come with photo documentation that is difficult to refute. Some areas have automated speed enforcement systems that work much like red light cameras, taking pictures, producing a speed measurement and sending the ticket through the mail. For information about the locations of red light and speed cameras, try this Web site.
It may seem like too much of a hassle to contest a ticket. In some cases, it may not be worth it. But if you genuinely believe you have a case or if you can't afford any more points on your license (more on those soon), then it may be a good idea. In any case, it's important to either pay your ticket or go through the process of contesting it. Doing nothing about a ticket can result in an increased fine or even a bench warrant being issued for your arrest, and a suspension of your license.
Now, say you couldn't get out of the ticket. Let's look at how that will affect your driving record and insurance.
Points, Insurance and Traffic School
Each state has a system that assigns point values for traffic offenses. If a driver accumulates a certain number of points in a given time frame (perhaps a year), his or her driver's license can be suspended. Insurance companies will also raise premiums for points on a license, and you can get tagged with labels like "high risk driver." Here are the point values for Georgia, HowStuffWorks' home state:
If you accumulate enough points to face losing your license, you will generally be allowed a hearing in front of a "hearing officer." At the hearing, you can explain the past tickets and account for any mitigating circumstances. You should also explain why any tickets weren't contested. Share what you're doing to be a better and more careful driver. If you drive more than average (more than 15,000 miles a year), explain how that may increase your risk for being ticketed. Is your job dependent on driving, or does your family depend on your ability to drive? If so, that may help you to retain your license.
If your license is revoked, you will have to wait before reapplying and may have to have a reinstatement hearing or to take the driver's license exam again.
Depending on the laws in your state and your insurance company's policies, your insurance company will likely allow one moving violation every three to five years. Anything more than that and your premiums will be raised. Accidents will certainly raise your premiums. One way to avoid points is by contesting a ticket. But there is another way.
If you pay your ticket and go to traffic school, the points from the traffic offense will not go on your record. While this process involves spending six to eight hours in traffic school and paying for that traffic school, it can be well worth it to avoid the increased insurance premiums. And if you have a job that requires a clean driving record, traffic school may be the only option when you are facing points on your license.
Traffic school may seem like an inconvenience, but it's a route that provides more certainty than contesting your ticket in court. The policies on when you attend traffic school vary between jurisdictions. Some allow attendance of traffic school once a year, while others are more strict at once every 18 to 24 months. If you were ticketed for driving at least 15 miles per hour over the speed limit, local law may prevent you from attending.
Some states allow you to complete online traffic school, but others require that you sign up through a court clerk or to appear before a judge. Generally, some form of proof is required, such as a certificate, to show that you've completed traffic school.
Traffic schools, in an effort to attract customers, frequently employ eccentric and humorous methods. There are many comedy and improv traffic schools out there, and other possibilities exist to liven up a day full of traffic laws.
We've talked about traffic stops, contesting tickets, points and traffic school, but of course, it's possible to forgo all of that trouble by avoiding tickets all together. In this section, we'll go over some tips that can help you to be a better driver and to avoid traffic tickets.
First, it's important to be acquainted with traffic law. Consult your state DMV's Web site for information on laws in your area. Once you are familiar with the rules of the road, make sure you stay alert while driving and respect all of the traffic laws. Even if you are at an empty intersection at 2:00 a.m., it's important to obey the traffic laws for your own safety and the safety of others. You never know when another driver -- or a police officer -- may suddenly come speeding through the intersection.
It's important to keep up with traffic around you, but remember that many states have an "absolute speed limit," meaning that you can be pulled over for going even one mile per hour over the speed limit!
Stay out of the left lane -- more people get pulled over from that lane, and it should be used primarily for passing.
Keep your mirrors and windows clean, and make sure nothing is obstructing your view.
Look out for highway patrol cars, which are often lurking around bends in freeways or in other concealed spots. If you see a highway patrol officer exit the freeway, don't consider that a license to speed. Highway patrol officers sometime exit a freeway only to come back on via another onramp a few minutes later.
If you see a highway patrol officer giving someone a ticket on or driving on the opposite side, that doesn't mean you're safe from being pulled over for speeding. Highway patrol officers are very skilled drivers, using powerful cars, and they can and will catch up to you if they see you speeding or driving recklessly. Law enforcement agencies also employ aircraft, motorcycles and radar stations to detect speeders, so you never know when you're being tracked.
Avoid any other way you can attract attention to yourself:
- Bumper stickers - it's certainly your right to have them, but they may attract unnecessary attention and possibly produce a bias in an officer who disapproves of the sticker's message
- Excessive window tint - certain levels of tint are illegal in some states
- Vanity plates
- Radar detectors - if an officer sees you have one, he or she will be less inclined to let you off
- Poorly maintained vehicle, including worn tires and missing hubcaps
- Vehicle modifications - extra lights and antennas, illegal muffler, lowered or dropped suspension
For more information on traffic tickets and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- How Traffic Works
- How DUI Works
- How Road Rage Works
- How Red Light Cameras Work
- How Radar Detectors Work
- How Brakes Work
- How Airbags Work
- How does a laser speed gun work to measure a car's speed?
- How does a traffic light detect that a car has pulled up and is waiting for the light to change?
- Why are they replacing all the traffic lights in my town?
More Great Links
- "License Suspensions and Revocations." Georgia Department of Driver Services. http://www.dds.ga.gov/drivers/DLdata.aspx? con=1744060376&ty=dl
- "Traffic Tickets, Traffic Violations, Traffic Law." FindLaw. http://public.findlaw.com/traffic-ticket-violation-law/traffic-ticket-overview/
- "Traffic Tickets - Resource Center." Nolo. http://www.nolo.com/resource.cfm/catID/CF015A63-6B69-4EED- A34B6F4035C8BE0E/104/263/
- "Fight Your Own Ticket." National Motorists Association. http://www.motorists.com/issues/tickets/ticket_fighting_info_strategies.html
- "Traffic Information." California Courts: Self Help Center. 12/29/06. http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/traffic/info.htm#3kinds