Flashing red lights in your rear-view mirror are never a good thing, but it turns out getting a traffic ticket might not be as expensive as you think.
Conventional wisdom is that the financial hit of the fine is only part of the equation; the bigger concern is that your car insurance rates will shoot through the roof as a result, and possibly stay there for years. But that’s not the way it actually works, according to a new study from InsuranceQuotes.com, which found that only 31% of drivers saw their premiums rise after a laundry list of traffic violations like speeding, running a red light, and driving without a seat belt.
“There really is a myth that anyone who gets a traffic ticket is going to see an immediate increase in their premiums,” says Laura Adams, InsuranceQuotes.com‘s senior insurance analyst. Insurance companies find out about your driving record from your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, but Adams says it’s expensive for them to pull these reports. As a result, “We find they’re not pulling those reports as often as you might think,” she says.
However, if you’re young enough that your parents’ warning about a ticket leading to higher insurance premiums is still fresh in your mind, sorry: Your parents are still right. The survey found that 41% of drivers between the ages of 18 and 29 paid more after a ticket, versus only 15% of drivers over 50 years old. Adams says insurers check younger drivers’ DMV records as frequently as every six months, which means they’re more likely to catch an infraction shortly after it happens.
Carriers generally pull your driving record (along with your credit record, but that’s a whole other story) when you first apply to get a new insurance policy; with older drivers, they might check in as infrequently as every two or three years. If you’ve been a customer of the same company for a number of years, “Insurers increasingly rely on the experience you have with them,” says Bob Hartwig, president and economist at Insurance Information Institute (III). “They have a very good sense of what your driving behavior is like and what your prosopensity to file claims is like.”
This doesn’t sit well with Bob Hunter, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America. Last month, the watchdog group published a study (disputed by the III) reporting that poor people pay higher car insurance premiums, even if they’re better drivers than wealthy people who live in the same neighborhood.
“Insurers are relying less and less on driving records,” Hunter says, calling the results of InsuranceQuote’s survey “more evidence that insurers are… emphasizing non-driving-related factors.” Hunter says this practice hurts poor and moderate-income drivers.
There are a few other reasons why a ticket might not translate into a premium hike. DMV errors might keep some tickets from getting logged into the system, Hartwig says. Drivers who commute across a state line, or who are traveling on business or vacation, might fly under the radar if they get a ticket in a state where they don’t reside, since some state DMVs don’t share all violation data with one other. And if you go to court to fight the ticket, you could wind up with a lesser charge that doesn’t add points to your license.
But to all you Mario Andretti wanna-bes, this isn’t a license to drive fast, recklessly or otherwise illegally. Even if your insurance carrier doesn’t find out about your ticket right away, it will notice the infraction the next time it checks the state’s DMV data. That black mark stays on your record for a few years (the exact amount of time varies by state.)
You’d have to be very lucky for the window of time in between checks of your driving record to coincide exactly with the time frame when the ticket is on your driving record — and if you were that lucky to begin with, you would have gotten away with just a warning, right?