Traffic violations can be minor – or significant – crimes, and they are punished according to their severity. A traffic violation is an error in the operation of a motor vehicle, whether in motion or not, that results in some form of punishment by police.
A minor traffic violation is usually punished by a small fine payable by ticket. This category includes issues such as parking overtime, a minor speeding violation, failure to stop, failure to yield, or marked lane violations. A police officer will generally give the operator a ticket for any of these issues but will check the police database for outstanding warrants prior to letting the driver go. Individuals may challenge even minor traffic tickets in court, and many city and county court systems have divisions specifically for traffic matters.
A minor traffic violation can become serious if someone is injured, such as failure to yield resulting in an accident or if drunk driving is involved. Police, working with the local prosecutor, have discretion to bring misdemeanor or felony charges unless the state law mandates a specific charge, but charges are usually escalated (more serious) if the driver has a prior record of violations. Even a misdemeanor violation may carry significant penalties such as license suspension, fines, and requirements for driver education class completion. A felony is potentially punishable by one year or more in prison.
Many states have a point system by which drivers are penalized for violations. These systems generally penalize drivers for repeated violations and may result in revocation of an individual’s license if a number of points are accrued in a brief calendar period. For instance, in Michigan, traffic violations are graded from 1 to 6 according to seriousness, and if a driver meets or exceeds six points, his license is suspended. Tickets received outside of the driver’s home state are usually added to the number of points accrued in one’s home state. Florida, Colorado, and other states use a similar system.
Some states allow drivers to reduce the number of points by taking a safe driving class. Driving records may be researched on Infotracer.com, including traffic violations and related criminal charges and convictions, if any.
While Massachusetts does not use a point system, the state Department of Motor Vehicles will suspend a driver’s license for 30 days if the driver has three speeding tickets within a 12 month period, and junior operators are held to even more rigorous standards. If a driver accumulates three or more surchargeable offenses in Massachusetts (violations in which the driver is found at fault) within an 18 month period, the driver is required to attend an 8-hour retraining course. In many jurisdictions, habitual traffic offenders are treated differently, with lower thresholds for license suspensions.
Insurance companies base their rates on the individual’s home address as well as driving record, including the number of traffic violations a person has amassed. This information is shared through credit reporting data.
State departments of motor vehicles retain information about traffic violations for varying amounts of time, usually 5-8 years, during which the information is part of the individual’s driving record.
Many states offer drivers opportunities to correct issues with their vehicles and/or driving skills in exchange for a reduction in the number of points or surcharge incurred. This opportunity is usually only available at the time the penalty is paid for the violation. Inquire about safe driving or driver training courses that may reduce the number of points accrued, or the possibility of getting a record of violations expunged from a driving record, including when the driver was found to be not at fault or a first-time offense followed by years of a clean record.