Avoiding Traffic Tickets

If you seach the Internet for tips on how to fight a traffic ticket, you will likely find a lot of advertisements for books on how to fight your ticket, but very little direct information on how to contest a ticket. While there are some publications which do give very good, comprehensive information on traffic ticket law and how to challenge a ticket in court, you should consider the following: there is an enormous amount of free information on the Internet, covering a wide range of legal issues. At the same time, the information you can glean on fighting tickets is relatively scant. This is not because the methods of fighting tickets are secret - it is because in many cases there are serious practical and legal limitations to what you can do to fight a ticket once it is issued. Your best bet is to avoid getting a ticket in the first place.

The following suggestions will not guarantee that a violation of traffic law will not result in a ticket, but they may help you avoid a ticket. To the extent that some of these tips appear to be common sense, please recall that it is usually a minor lapse in judgment that will result in the issuance of a typical traffic ticket.

Obey The Traffic Laws

While unquestionably obvious, the best way to avoid a ticket is to simply follow the traffic law. If you intentionally violate the traffic laws, you will get little sympathy from a police officer, or from the judge or magistrate who oversees the hearing for your traffic ticket. If you want to get a break from the officer or a good "plea bargain" offer when you go to court, having a good driving record will help enormously.

Granted, the United States is in many ways a nation of speeders. In some states, it is rare to find highway traffic adhering to the speed limit, save for when cars have taken notice of a speed trap ahead of them. If you don't want to drive in the slow lane at the speed limit, while everybody passes you by, keep in mind that the police will typically stop the fastest cars on the road. If you must speed, try to match the average speed of traffic, as opposed to trying to set a new land speed record. You should never be the fastest car on the road, and should never be the driver whose frenetic weaving from lane to lane draws everybody's attention.

If the local practice is to require you to sign a traffic ticket issued to you, you should be aware of any consequences if you refuse to sign. While your signature acknowledging the ticket is not an admission of guilt, your refusal to sign may result in the officer taking you into custody so you can be formally charged and be required to post a bond.

Keep Your Car In Good Condition

It has been my experience that people in relatively ordinary motor vehicles tend to attract less attention from the police. If you choose to drive a bright red sports car, you will draw attention to yourself over somebody driving a sedan, no matter what the condition of your car. However, even if your car is relatively average for your community, there are certain things which may still make your car stand out to an officer.

The most obvious things that will draw attention to you are physical or mechanical problems with your car, such as unrepaired damage from a prior accident, a defective muffler, a burned out light or turn signal, or a license plate in your back window instead of on your bumper. Similarly, if you have tinted windows in your vehicle but have not complied with state law limitations on the tinting, you are giving the police license to pull you over at any time. If you car is full of garbage or debris, clean it out.

Keep in mind also that unusual vanity license plates, weird bumper stickers, stickers or objects in your windows, objects hanging from your rear view mirror, and other similar items can also draw the attention of a police officer. Don't expect a break on a traffic ticket if you have an "I can't drive 55" bumper sticker. Similarly, don't expect that you will avoid a ticket merely because your car displays a sticker documenting that you donated to a police organization.

Watch For Significant Speed Limit Changes

The most likely place to encounter a speed trap is shortly after a transition from a relatively high speed limit to a relatively low speed limit. On many small highways, the speed limit can drop by twenty or thirty miles per hour as you enter a small town. Keep in mind that the second you reach a new speed limit sign, you are obligated to follow that new speed limit. That is, if the speed limit transitions from fifty-five miles per hour to thirty miles per hour, you are obligated to slow to the new speed limit before you reach the "thirty miles per hour" speed limit sign. Similarly, some roads have different speeds for periods when school is in session. As many drivers fail to take proper notice of speed limit changes, or fail to slow until after they pass the sign announcing the new speed limit, these transition points are often monitored quite closely by local police agencies.

There are often signs in advance of these transition points, warning of a change in speed limit or of a school zone. Another sign to watch for is a "braking required" sign on a downhill road. Similarly, if a police car is driving down a road at exactly the speed limit, don't even think about passing it - it is likely either intentionally slowing traffic during a monitoring period for federal highway funds, or is being driven by an officer who is hungering to pull over anybody who dares inch past him.

Know Your Local Speed Traps

While it is not always possible to know where a speed trap will be when you are outside of your community, most people do most of their driving close to home. The police are somewhat consistent in the areas where they monitor traffic speed, as they have determined the locations at which people are most likely to be speeding, and where their cars are least likely to be noticed by oncoming traffic. If you know where the police monitor local traffic, the exercise of extra caution when proceeding through those areas will significantly reduce your chances of receiving a speeding ticket.

Even if you are not in your local community, you can anticipate speed traps being placed in certain locations. If you are on a relatively busy road through a town or city, a speed trap is often going to be located just around a curve, or on a somewhat concealed side street.

If you are on a highway and notice that the big rigs are suddenly driving at a slower speed, consider it a sign of a possible speed trap ahead. Truck drivers communicate with each other by radio, and warn each other about speed traps.

Be Particularly Careful At "Closing Time"

If you are driving around 2:00 AM, or whatever time bars are required to close in your community, pay particularly close attention to the traffic laws, and be particularly careful about making proper stops at traffic lights and stop signs. The reason is simple: the police monitoring traffic at this hour are looking for any sign that a driver may be drunk, and will often take any available excuse to stop a car to check the driver. It is my experience that at this hour the police pay particular attention to older vehicles, as the habitual late night patrons of bars tend to drive older cars.

The plus side is that if you are polite and sober, you are more likely to be issued a warning than a ticket for a minor traffic oversight, such as rolling through a stop sign on a deserted road instead of coming to a full stop. The down side is that there is no guarantee that an officer won't issue you a ticket, and if you have a significant history of traffic violations you probably will receive the ticket instead of the warning even if you are completely sober.

Be Polite

If you are pulled over by an officer, no matter how difficult it may be, you should be polite. (Note that there is a difference between courtesy and sucking up - don't cross that line.) While many officers are very professional and courteous, some officers will be unpleasant to deal with during traffic stops - but you must nonetheless be polite.

Pull Over

Don't delay pulling over. Be prompt about pulling over, if at all possible onto the right shoulder, and avoid obstructing traffic. If you did not see the officer immediately after his dome lights went on, apologize for your delay in stopping.

Stay In Your Car

the officer does not want you to get out of your car, not only for your own safety but out of concerns about the possibility of a violent confrontation.

Turn Off the Engine

Don't give the officer any reason to suspect that you may try to leave the scene.

Provide a Quiet Environment

Turn off your car's radio, and advise your passengers to stop any chatter.

Avoid Suprises

Don't root around in your car for objects or items, as the officer may be concerned that you are looking for a weapon. If you must retrieve items from your pockets or the glove compartment (such as your license or vehicle registration), let the officer know what you are doing before reaching for the items.

Keep Cool

if you are rude to an officer, you are much less likely to receive a warning instead of a ticket, or a break when a speeding ticket is issued. You are also more likely to inspire the officer to look for additional violations or vehicle defects which can justify tickets. You may even inspire the officer to note your belligerence on the ticket, so as to make it very difficult for you to get a good deal or dismissal if you go to court.

Don't Argue

Even if the officer makes a statement you believe to be ludicrous, such as "Did you know you were driving at 140 mph?", don't argue - and certainly not with a statement like, "That's absurd - I was only going 125". A calm acknowledgement that does not admit guilt, or a denial limited to "I don't believe so", will leave you in better standing.

Declare Any Firearms

If you have a CCW permit that allows you to have a firearm in your vehicle, make sure that you immediately inform the officer both of your permit and of the presence of a firearm.

In criminal defense work, it is not unusual to find a case where somebody has escalated a minor traffic stop into a full vehicle search by being rude to an officer - and ended up being charged with a crime for having contraband or an illegal weapon in the car. (In one real-life case, a man was charged with a felony because he had a double-edged knife in a cooler in the back seat - something the officer would never have looked for had the driver not been completely belligerent from the moment he was pulled over.) It is surprising how many rude drivers learn that their cars "smell like marijuana".

Don't Say Too Much

The first thing an officer will typically ask after pulling somebody over is, "Do you know why I stopped you?"

Sometimes the proper answer to this question is "yes". In an admittedly extreme example, if you were going 85 miles per hour in a 25 mph school zone, you won't help yourself by pretending you don't know why you were stopped. However, if you were merely going a few miles over the speed limit, or truly aren't sure why you were stopped, don't start guessing - each infraction you admit may be a basis for a ticket. If you are being stopped for rolling through a stop light, you don't help yourself at all by admitting that you were previously speeding - the officer may not even be aware of that. Try saying something like, "I'm sorry, officer, but I was just chewed out by my boss and I am probably a bit distracted - I'm really not sure why you stopped me." (Note that an excuse of this type won't convince an officer not to give you a ticket, but it may make the officer a bit more understanding of why you violated a traffic law.)

Another common first question is, "Do you know how fast you were going?" You can anticipate that an officer asking this question has a very good idea of how fast you were going. At the same time, an admission of your speed will make it extremely difficult for you to beat a ticket at a later date. If you are absolutely going to fight a ticket, no matter what its merits, you should answer "no" - or provide a softer version of "no", such as, "I'm sorry, officer, but I am really not sure what my speed was."

Be Honest

As noted above, if you are stopped by a police officer for speeding, the officer will have a very good idea of your speed. For some reason, people believe they help themselves when they misrepresent their speed under these circumstances. If you were driving at fifteen or twenty miles per hour over the speed limit, pretending you were only three or four miles per hour over the limit is not going to impress the officer. While there is no guarantee, officers will sometimes respond very positively to honest self-appraisals of speed. A particular "real life" exchange, following a traffic stop on a 70 MPH highway:

Officer: Do you know why I stopped you?

Driver: Yes, I was speeding.

Officer: Do you know how fast you were going?

Driver: I'm not sure exactly, because honestly I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have been until I saw your car. I think I was going about 82?

Officer: Very close. I clocked you at 84.

[After checking license, registration, and driving history.]

Officer: Because of your honesty, I'm writing you a ticket for five over.

(Keep in mind that in this case the driver fully expected to be ticketed, and had no intention of later arguing in court that he wasn't speeding.)

Imagine if you were assigned to a thankless task where most people you encountered were in violation of the law, deeply resented your enforcement of the law, and lied to try to avoid the application of the law. How refreshing would it be to find somebody who was both polite and honest? Don't forget that behind the uniform, police officers are people.

Note that if you intend to later claim that your driving conduct was caused by a sudden emergency, such as an animal in front of your car, or by a mechanical defect in your vehicle, you should tell the officer about the emergency at the time you are stopped. If you claim a mechanical defect in your car, you had better also be prepared to document the defect in court by bringing in receipts for the repair of that defect.

Don't Rely On Gimmicks or Concocted Excuses

While we have all heard stories, some true, about people who got out of traffic tickets by concocting stories, from the simple to the bizarre, don't count on an officer believing them. The odds are, the officer has heard them all before on multiple occasions, and if he has let somebody off it is with full knowledge that the story was a fabrication or exaggeration. Even if it is true that you desperately have to go to the bathroom, don't expect the officer's sympathy if you just passed a rest stop or a fast food restaurant - if you are that desperate, you are expected to take any reasonable opportunity to relieve yourself, even if you would prefer to wait until you get home.

Remember that there is an increasing probability that your entire transaction with the officer will be videotaped, often with a complete audio track of anything you say. What you may believe to be an Oscar-winning acting job about why you should not receive a ticket may look absolutely ludicrous if presented in court on video.

Similarly, don't expect a minor error in a traffic ticket to be a "loophole" which will allow you to defeat a valid ticket, without first checking local laws and policies. Most jurisdictions will permit the officer to amend the ticket, either by re-issuing a proper ticket or by oral motion in court.

Don't Ignore Your Ticket

Some drivers engage in wishful thinking about traffic tickets - that if they ignore them, they will go away. They don't. If you don't respond to a traffic ticket, you may be held to have defaulted on the ticket, which may result in automatic conviction. You may be subjected to an arrest warrant which will result in your being taken into custody should you again be stopped in the jurisdiction where the ticket was issued. You may ultimately be subject to a license suspension for failing to pay a fine. In the case of a traffic misdemeanor, you are very likely to be the subject of a bench warrant for your arrest. Please note that traffic stops which result in arrests on bench warrants often occur at times which are not amenable to your being promptly brought before a judge. While in some cases you may be able to post a bond, in other cases you may end up spending time in jail while waiting to be brought to court. Needless to say, an arrest is unpleasant and a night in jail is even worse

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Jan 17, 2015.