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Down economy means upswing in traffic tickets

Police officers typically issue more traffic tickets when the economy sours. That means drivers should beware that they’re more likely to get ticketed now -- and more likely to be hit with higher auto insurance premiums.

Municipalities struggling with tight budgets can use the boost in revenue from traffic tickets to help pay their bills.

“Police are having a quick trigger finger the past 18 months or so,” says Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association. “There’s less tolerance, and tickets are being issued much quicker. We know the pressure being put on governments, but it doesn’t justify what’s going on.”

A study published in 2009 by the University of Chicago showed significantly more tickets are issued in the year following a decline in a municipality's revenue. When a municipality saw a 10 percent drop in revenue growth, it also saw a 6 percent rise in tickets issued, according to the study.

The study concluded that when the economy worsens, tickets often are used to bolster municipal revenue rather than to protect drivers' safety.

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The average cost of a traffic ticket is $150 -- including court costs but excluding any subsequent hike in your auto insurance premiums.

What does a traffic ticket mean for your insurance costs?

It’s not unusual for a driver's auto insurance premiums to go up 20 percent after receiving a traffic ticket, Biller says. For someone who's paying $100 a month for auto insurance, that could mean an extra $20. Additional traffic tickets could cause further spikes.

For their part, auto insurance companies say the amount that a driver’s premiums increase because of a traffic ticket varies dramatically. “There are just way too many factors that go into the pricing of an individual policy,” says Raleigh Floyd, a spokesman for Allstate.

While it's true that traffic tickets can cause a driver’s premiums to go up, a traffic ticket issued in conjunction with an accident would cause much higher spikes in policy costs, Floyd says.

A driver who's considered higher risk may see his insurance costs go up even more compared with someone considered lower risk, State Farm spokesman Kip Diggs says. Younger drivers and those with a poor driving history are higher risk, as are motorists who drive in heavily populated areas. Older adults who drive less and have excellent driving records are considered lower risk by insurance companies.

What should you do if you’re pulled over?

Many motorists are certainly jittery when they’re stopped by an officer and, in turn, may say something wrong, Biller says. A driver who's been pulled over should remain calm and answer the officer’s questions succinctly.

Biller says one of the most popular questions an officer asks is: “Do you know how fast you were going?” The answer should always be: “Yes, I believe I was going the speed limit.”

In the end, no matter how calm a motorist is, he still could get slapped with a ticket.One of the biggest mistakes drivers make is accepting the ticket and not fighting it, Biller says. An estimated 95 percent of motorists don’t fight their tickets in court.

auto insurance traffic tickets

Here are five things to keep in mind about contesting a ticket:

  • Once the police officer hands you a ticket, ask for his name and badge number and jot down his car's license plate number.
  • Ask the officer what method was used to determine your speed, says Scott Hullinger, an attorney at Hullinger & Speredelozzi in San Diego. The two most common methods are radar and laser. If either technology wasn’t up to snuff, this can be a weapon in fighting the ticket.
  • Use the officer’s license plate number to get the calibration records of the speedometer for the police car involved to ensure the radar gun used was accurate, Hullinger says.
  • If you have your cell phone camera handy, take pictures of the scene. In some cases, speed limit signs and other traffic signs were knocked down or blocked by trees, says Wesley Browne, an attorney at the Browne Law Office in Richmond, Ky.
  • If an officer doesn’t show up to court, the traffic ticket usually is dismissed, Browne says.

When should you hire an attorney to fight your ticket?

Attorneys concede that motorists can fight traffic tickets on their own, but lawyers emphasize that their insight into local politics can lead to dismissed tickets and reduced fines.

“I’ve never handled a ticket that I didn’t help in some way -- either getting the speed lowered or the ticket dismissed," says Browne, who handles about 50 to 55 traffic tickets each year in Kentucky. He charges about $200 for a simple traffic violation.

In San Diego, Hullinger charges $99 for a simple traffic violation and claims he's able to get about half of the contested tickets dismissed. In about 90 percent to 95 percent of Hullinger's cases, drivers receive a reduction in fines or driver's license points, he says.

Here are three reasons why you should consider hiring an attorney when you've received a ticket:

  • You got a ticket out of state. Hiring an attorney means you won’t have to go back to that state for court appearances, Browne says.
  • You’ve had multiple violations, and being stuck with another violation will further erode your driving history. An attorney can inform you of diversion programs you may not know about, Browne says. For example, in Madison County, Ky., where Browne practices, motorists who are accepted into the diversion program watch an online driver’s safety course. Once you've completed the program, your traffic ticket is dismissed. The cost of the program is $150.
  • Police used photo technology to ticket you, such as a photo red light or a photo speed ticket. Several court causes have uncovered problems with these technologies, Hullinger says.

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