Every day, thousands of U.S. drivers are pulled over by police officers. In fact, traffic stops are the No. 1 reason Americans interact with the police each year. Ultimately, many of those traffic stops result in a ticket or citation of some kind, although drivers are getting traffic tickets from speed and red light cameras as well.
When drivers engage in risky behavior—from the relatively innocuous, such as driving with a broken tail light, to the more dangerous, such as texting and driving—they make the roads less safe. Law enforcement officials use traffic tickets as a deterrent from these types of behaviors.
Most Americans choose to either pay for those traffic tickets or dispute them in court. However, a large number of American drivers choose to simply ignore tickets altogether.
The issue of unpaid traffic tickets is one that exists in every state. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, for example, suspended the licenses of nearly 23,000 drivers because they failed to pay traffic tickets. Although that policy is currently being challenged in court by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama is not alone in suspending licenses for unpaid traffic tickets.
The consequences for failing to pay traffic tickets can be both extensive and expensive—and a suspended license is only one of those consequences.
How Much Do Traffic Tickets Cost?
Traffic ticket costs can vary dramatically across the country and will vary even within each state. In many cases, different jurisdictions set their own fine amount for various traffic infractions.
According to Esurance, the average speeding ticket across the U.S. costs $150. That average hides some of the serious variances in the data, however. In Virginia, for example, speeding tickets can run as high as $2,500 for driving at least 10 mph over the speed limit, which is considered reckless driving. In other states, like Tennessee, you'll likely never see a ticket above $50.
Insurance Impact of Traffic Tickets
Most car insurance providers will consider a person's driving record when determining their rates. As a rule, drivers with more traffic tickets and points on their driving records will likely have to pay more for insurance. Insurers see drivers with excessive license points as a higher risk who are more likely to file a claim.
Different types of traffic tickets can result in increased insurance rates. For example, reckless driving tickets can double a driver's insurance rate, while even speeding tickets can result in a 33 percent increase in rates.
Unpaid tickets will have an even more harmful effect on car insurance rates for drivers. For example, parking tickets are often not considered by insurance companies when determining rates. But unpaid parking tickets might be. In fact, insurance companies may refuse to renew a policy due to unpaid parking tickets, particularly if they’ve led to your license being suspended.
Drivers should consider keeping their insurance active while their licenses are suspended. Insurers may see a lapse in insurance coverage as an added risk and charge higher rates once the license is reinstated. Insurance companies may allow drivers with suspended licenses to keep their insurance, particularly if there are underage drivers on the policy.
Unpaid Traffic Tickets Are a Serious Offense
Fines are only part of the problem. In some cases, traffic tickets can carry other costs, especially when they go unpaid. After all, traffic tickets are a matter of law. Drivers who fail to pay a traffic ticket could be arrested in some jurisdictions. Once that occurs, the driver may be charged with a misdemeanor criminal offense, pay more in fines and temporarily lose their license. They may also have to complete volunteer community service or spend time in jail, in extreme cases.
All of these potential negative results come at the cost of lost productivity and work, which can be difficult to calculate. However, reinstating a suspended license can cost a few hundred dollars in some states, and drivers typically have to attend driving classes.
Driving while your license is suspended can lead to worse problems. You may incur fines or even jail time in serious cases. And if you're caught with a suspended license and no insurance, you could pay even more in fines or lose your driving privileges entirely. In New York, for example, driving uninsured could result in a fine of up to $1,500; licence and registration revocation; as well as imprisonment for up to 15 days.
Overall, the ongoing costs for failing to pay traffic or parking tickets is high. Job prospects decline for those who receive misdemeanors and criminal records of any kind as well. According to a Pew Charitable Trust study, those who have been incarcerated earn less annually and work fewer hours. Furthermore, about 40% of the U.S. population lives in cities without reliable public transportation, making it difficult to get to work without a car—which may lead to job loss.
It almost goes without saying: Unpaid tickets are simply not worth the financial risk.
Maxime Rieman is Product Manager at ValuePenguin. Educating and assisting shoppers about financial products has been Rieman's focus, which led her to joining ValuePenguin, a consumer research and advice company based in New York. Previously, she was product marketing director at CoverWallet and launched the personal insurance team at NerdWallet.
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