Traffic Tickets & Penalties

Traffic tickets are notices issued by law enforcement officers to drivers who have violated traffic regulations or committed a vehicle-related offense. These traffic citations typically incur fines, but they may also require drivers to appear in court. The severity of traffic violations is quantified by points, which are calculated differently by each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). However, as a general notion, speeding ticket points are typically less severe than points earned from DUI charges. The accumulation of points on a driver’s license over time may result in a driver’s license suspension

A revoked or suspended drivers license may be reinstated by meeting the proper stipulations or getting certain traffic tickets dismissed. However, a driver must first understand the point system established by the state or county where the ticket was issued. To learn about traffic tickets, the point system, criminal traffic offenses and additional topics, review the sections below.

What is a traffic ticket?

Traffic tickets, also called citations, are legally binding notices that a driver violated a state’s traffic regulations. Because different states have different regulations regarding traffic laws, certain traffic violations may be particular to a specific region. A traffic ticket is issued by a law enforcement officer and must include the full name of a driver, the correct specifications of his or her vehicle and the accurate details regarding the location, date and time the violation occurred. Additionally, the type of violation that was committed must be correctly specified in the citation, or the ticket may lose its legal validity.

A moving or speeding traffic violation is typically considered an infraction and subject to a civil traffic ticket. However, depending on the severity of a violation, the driving record of a driver and the judgment of a law enforcement officer, criminal citations may be issued, yielding more severe consequences. Additionally, traffic tickets typically have a negative impact on a driver’s auto insurance policy, potentially increasing the cost of insurance premiums or subjecting a driver to be denied coverage by an insurance company. Drivers may fight traffic tickets in court in an attempt to lessen or dismiss charges.

How much do traffic tickets cost?

Traffic fines are established by each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. A state typically determines a “base traffic fine” for each type of traffic violation, but law enforcement officers may issue higher fines based on additional factors related to a particular driver and incident. The cost of traffic tickets is calculated based on the following factors:

  • The type of violation. Speeding ticket fines will be significantly lower than drunk driving fines, for instance. Different traffic violations yield different amounts of fines.
  • The severity of the violation. Drivers may pay speeding ticket fines of different values based on how much over the speed limit they were driving. Additionally, speeding traffic citations issued in school or construction zones typically yield higher costs than an average speeding ticket.
  • The law enforcement officer. Different law enforcement officers may issue different traffic fines based on their particular judgment of the situation and the driver. Similar infractions may be judged differently depending on each officer’s perspective.
  • The driver’s driving record. If a driver has accumulated a substantial amount of driving record points over time and commits yet another traffic violation, it is possible that a law enforcement officer may feel the need to charge higher fines when issuing a new citation.

What is the difference between a traffic ticket and a parking ticket?

Traffic tickets are considered moving or speeding infractions, thus being classified as “strict liability” violations that did not have a criminal intent. Conversely, parking tickets are issued as non-moving traffic violations, which are generally considered less severe than moving infractions. Common examples of non-moving traffic infractions include:

  • Parking in a no-parking zone.
  • Parking next to a fire hydrant.
  • Parking in front of an expired meter.
  • Parking in a handicapped parking space without a valid permit.
  • A vehicle with excessive muffler noise.
  • A vehicle with a broken taillight.
  • A vehicle with excessively tinted windows.
  • A vehicle or broken mirrors.

Thus, a non-moving traffic violation such as a parking ticket is not considered the same as a traffic ticket that was issued based on the movement or speed of a vehicle. Traffic fines issued by non-moving violations are typically much lower than speeding ticket fines and may be dismissed if drivers can prove that a parking meter was defective or that they were not aware of a broken taillight, for instance.

What are examples of traffic violations?

Moving or speeding traffic violations are typically infractions that do not have active criminal intent but are deemed as unsafe driving behavior for infringing traffic laws. A traffic violation may originate from:

  • Speeding. One of the most common examples of a traffic violation is a speeding ticket. The severity of a speeding traffic citation depends on how fast a vehicle was being driven in relation to the speed limit set in the street it was in. Additionally, speeding infractions that occur in school or construction zones may be subject to higher fines and penalties.
  • Distracted driving. Different states have specific traffic laws concerning the use of handheld devices by drivers, but distracted driving that involves any kind of technology device is typically considered a violation. This may include texting, talking on the phone or operating a GPS system while a vehicle is in motion.
  • Reckless or aggressive driving. Drivers are not allowed to willfully disregard the safety of others while driving, even if they had no intent to cause an accident. Examples of traffic violations regarding reckless driving include the sudden changing of lanes or zigzagging between other vehicles.
  • Running a stop sign or red light. Traffic citations can be issued to drivers who fail to make a full stop when coming to a stop sign or a red light.

Is a traffic ticket an offense?

Most moving and speeding traffic violations are simply considered infractions, thus not being classified as criminal offenses. Civil traffic tickets may incur fines, raise the price of auto insurance premiums or affect a resident’s eligibility to renew a driver’s license, but typically do not lead to criminal sentences such as incarceration. However, drivers must be mindful that criminal traffic citations may be considered criminal offenses, such as in the case of:

  • DUI charges
  • Hit and run accidents
  • Vehicle-related manslaughter or homicide
  • Leaving the scene of an accident or attempting to dodge a law enforcement officer

Criminal traffic violations are typically considered misdemeanors but may be charged as felonies. For instance, if a driver is charged with DUI due to an accident that resulted in a fatality, he or she may be charged with jail time or sentenced to prison, depending on the severity of the incident. Felonies require drivers to appear in the local district court where the incident took place, and a trial by judge or jury may occur in order to determine a conviction. Other potential consequences of being issued a criminal traffic violation include:

  • License suspension or revocation.
  • Probation.
  • Home confinement.
  • High violation fines.
  • Traffic school courses.

Is a warning the same as a traffic ticket?

Traffic tickets yield penalties and fines, and if a crime was committed, a citation may even be considered a criminal offense. However, depending on the severity of a traffic violation, a law enforcement officer may only issue a warning, also known as a traffic stop, to a driver.

Warnings, which may be verbal or written, are not considered the same as citations. A driver who is issued a warning is not subject to paying traffic fines or receiving points on a license. Similar traffic violations may be subject to warnings or citations, depending on the judgment of the law enforcement officer that is evaluating the driver and his or her infraction. From the standpoint of an officer, issuing a verbal or written warning to a driver may be beneficial for the following reasons:

  • Less paperwork. A warning may require less paperwork to be filled out by a law enforcement officer, thus allowing the officer to quickly move on to other incidents that are considered more severe.
  • No court appearance. In many cases, traffic citations require law enforcement officers to be present during a particular court date to justify the issuance of the citation. A warning incurs no penalties or fines, thus not requiring officers to appear in court.

Do all violations and tickets go on my driving record?

The information contained on a driving record may vary according to each state’s traffic regulations. The length of time that traffic citations as well as demerit points are displayed on a record also varies depending on the state where the infraction occurred. The following details are typically displayed on a record:

  • Personal information. A driver’s full name, gender and mailing address are displayed on a record.
  • Driver’s license information. The number, classification, endorsements, date of issuance, expiration date and state affiliation of a driver’s license can be seen on a driving record.
  • Traffic violations. If a driver was issued any sort of civil or criminal traffic ticket during a set period of time, the ticket will be seen on the driving record. This can include speeding infractions, DUI charges, collisions or any other vehicle-related accidents. However, written or verbal warnings are not recorded.
  • Traffic penalties. Penalties such as driving record points as well as traffic fines are typically displayed on a driving record. Additionally, records can show whether a driver has a revoked or suspended driver’s license.

How long does it take to get a point off a driving record?

Penalty points are governed by different regulations in regards to how long they stay on a driving record. Earned points on license may yield increases on auto insurance premiums, and if accumulated, could even potentially lead to the suspension of a license. The length of stay of demerit points on a record varies according to:

  • The state where the points were earned. Different states have different guidelines regarding how long penalty points stay on a driving record. For instance, most one-point convictions in California may take up to three years to get off a record. In Georgia, points are shown on a driving record for two years.
  • The severity of the violation. Driving record points are not the same in regards to severity. For instance, points earned for an illegal turn may disappear quickly, whereas points earned for DUI charges may take much longer. The length of stay of a point depends on how serious the traffic infraction is considered.
  • Whether the driver attended traffic school. In certain states, speeding ticket points may be taken off a driving record if the driver attends some form of state-approved driving school. However, there are limits regarding how many points can be erased during a given time period and how many times a driver may enroll in a traffic school.

Do traffic tickets show on a background check?

Outstanding traffic tickets may show on a background check depending on the state where the investigation is being conducted and the types of records that are being examined during the background check. For instance, during an interview process, an employer may request to gain access to a potential employee’s driving record, which typically displays demerit points, various sorts of traffic violations and any traffic-related criminal charges. Thus, it is possible for traffic citations to be shown on a background check depending on the severity of the citations or the depth of the background investigation being conducted. The following information regarding an individual may be examined during a background check:

  • Driving history
  • Credit history
  • Federal, state and county criminal history
  • Social Security Number (SSN) verification
  • Education level verification
  • References check
  • Drug screening

Different states have specific laws governing background checks as well as what types of records are considered public information. However, criminal traffic violations are generally accessible by background checks through public court records that contain details regarding a criminal offense and its judgment.

What is a DUI?

Driving under the influence (DUI), also known as driving while intoxicated (DWI) or operating a vehicle impaired (OVI), is a criminal offense that may result in community services, fines or even jail. Drivers must be mindful of DUI information such as the following:

  • Blood-alcohol concentration (BAC). The level of inebriation of a driver is determined by the measurement of his or her BAC, which evaluates the concentration of alcohol in the driver’s bloodstream.
  • Implied consent to a BAC test. Upon the issuance of a driver’s license, a resident automatically consents to being stopped by a law enforcement officer and undergoing a BAC test if the officer deems it necessary. A driver may be subject to a drivers license suspension if he or she fails to submit a BAC test.
  • Drug detection. DUI laws also apply to drivers who operate vehicles under the influence of illegal substances, even if they undergo a BAC test and no alcohol concentration is found in their bloodstream. A law enforcement officer may still file DUI charges if the driver presents physical or mental impairments due to the apparent consumption of illegal substances.

How does the drivers license point system work?

A driver’s license point system varies according to each state and the severity of each violation. Each state’s DMV establishes different values of demerit points for different violations as well as how many points are required to qualify a suspension. However, penalty points are generally judged as follows:

  • Warnings incur no points. Driving record points are not incurred through verbal or written warnings.
  • Most non-moving tickets incur no points. Points on license are not gained through tickets received due a defect of the vehicle, such as a broken taillight.
  • Minor tickets incur the least points. Moving violations such as running a red light or stop sign, distracted driving or speeding a little over the speed limit will typically earn a few demerit points for a driver.
  • Major citations earn several points. Moving violations such as speeding 60 miles per hour over the speed limit or speeding in a school or construction zone may earn a driver several points. Additionally, non-moving violations such as driving without an auto insurance may also incur several points.
  • Criminal traffic violations incur the most points. Severe violations such as DUI charges, reckless driving or failing to obey a law enforcement officer may incur the most points out of all vehicle-related violations, potentially even causing a license to be suspended.

What do I do if my drivers license is suspended?

A drivers license suspension may occur due to a single severe infraction or due to an accumulation of points over time. The most common reasons that cause a suspended license include:

  • Demerit points accumulation. Over time, a driver may accumulate enough points for a state’s DMV to have grounds to suspend his or her license.
  • No auto insurance. If a state requires all vehicles to be insured, a driver’s license may be suspended if the driver fails to renew his or her auto insurance policy.
  • A serious traffic violation. Depending on its severity, a single infraction with criminal ramifications may be enough for a state’s DMV to suspend a driver’s license.

The process of reinstating drivers license may take some time. Upon attempting to reinstate drivers license, a resident should take the following steps:

  • Do not drive for a while. Driving with a suspended license is a severe violation of traffic laws that may diminish the driver’s chances to reinstate a driver’s license in the future.
  • Enroll in a driving course. Undergoing a driving course, such as a mature driver program, can communicate to a state’s DMV that the driver is taking steps to improving his or her driving abilities. Additionally, a driving course for seniors may qualify drivers for lower auto insurance premiums.
  • Get an SR-22. Obtaining SR22 insurance from an insurer provides additional proof to a DMV that a driver is trust-worthy and should be considered for a driver’s license reinstatement.

Do I need SR-22 insurance?

SR-22 insurance, also known as a certificate of insurance, is an auto liability insurance document required by certain states’ Department of Motor Vehicles in the case of drivers who have committed severe traffic violations in the past. An SR-22 is essentially a certificate that an auto insurance company files with a DMV to vouch for a driver. This document may be required for the following reasons:

  • A driver had a suspended license. If a driver’s license has been revoked or suspended in the past for any reason, an SR22 filing may be required.
  • A driver was convicted of driving without an auto insurance. A DMV may demand an SR-22 form to be filed for a resident to reinstate drivers license if he or she has previously been convicted of driving without an auto insurance policy in a state that requires all vehicles to be insured.
  • An uninsured driver was involved in an accident. A drivers license reinstatement must be accompanied by an SR-22 if a driver has previously been involved in an accident and was uninsured at the time.

An SR22 filing costs an average of $25, but insurers typically include that cost in an auto insurance quote when it is necessary for a driver to reinstate a driver’s license.

Who needs to take a traffic school course?

Residents with a suspended drivers license may need to enroll in a traffic school course in order to be considered for a driver’s license reinstatement. Additionally, a mature driver program may yield car insurance discounts for seniors upon the completion of a course.

A mature driver improvement course may be offered by auto insurance companies, organizations such as the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) or even a state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Because mature driving lessons can qualify seniors to receive discounts with certain auto insurance companies, they are an alternative to cancelling car insurance policies, which may be mandatory for all vehicles in certain states. To enroll in one of these courses, drivers must typically be 55 years of age or older.

A driving course for seniors may also be beneficial for mature drivers who would like to update their knowledge of traffic regulations and/or take off demerit points earned on their licenses over time.

What does it mean to dismiss a traffic ticket?

The dismissal of a traffic ticket essentially means that the ticket is no longer valid. Among the various reasons why traffic citations may be dismissed, the most common ones are the following:

  • The police officer did not appear in court. If a driver appears in court to contest a traffic violation but the police officer that issued the ticket is absent, the court might dismiss the ticket on the basis that the driver’s argument is the only one being heard.
  • The driver attended a defensive driving course. A court may dismiss traffic tickets if drivers prove that they are being proactive about improving their driving skills by attending defensive driving courses.
  • The traffic equipment was defective. If a driver is able to prove that a red light camera or a police officer’s radar gun were not working correctly and a citation was issued unfairly, the ticket may be dismissed.
  • The information on the ticket was incorrect. Drivers may have grounds to request the dismissal of traffic violations if the police officer that issued a ticket wrote down incorrect information about the driver, vehicle or accident. A valid traffic citation must contain a driver’s full legal name, a vehicle’s exact specifications and an accident’s accurate details.