In all states, only those convicted of the more serious traffic violations, such as drunk or reckless driving, face the possibility of going to jail. State laws do not allow a judge to impose a jail sentence for speeding or failure to stop at a signal. Even where laws do give a judge the discretionary power to jail a traffic offender (sometimes for repeat offenders), the judge will very rarely choose to exercise it. Even though ordinary violations won't result in jail time, the other consequences of not contesting a ticket, or fighting and being found guilty, can be serious. As you doubtless know, you can face a stiff fine, a day in traffic school, significantly higher insurance premiums, and possibly even the suspension of your driver's license.
A routine ticket for speeding, failure to yield, or failure to stop at a stop sign will normally cost you between $75 and $300, depending on your state law and sometimes your driving record. If the fine isn't written right on the ticket, it's easy to learn the amount by looking online or calling the traffic court. States normally have standard fines for particular violations, based on the type of offense. In speeding cases, the fine can be based on how much you exceeded the posted speed limit. Some states can also set the fine based, at least in part, on whether you have other recent violations.
Because it's expensive for the state if you fight your ticket, courts place hurdles in the way of people who insist on a court hearing, while establishing "no muss, no fuss" options to pay your fine (often called "forfeiting bail"). But while paying up may be easy, it can have lasting negative consequences, because the violation will appear on your driving record, normally for about three years. The big exception to this rule is if you pay the fine in conjunction with going to traffic school. Completion of traffic school normally means the ticket will not appear on your record.
Depending on your state law and your insurance company policies, your auto insurance rates will normally not increase if you receive one ordinary moving violation over three to five years. But two or more moving violations—or a moving violation combined with an at-fault accident—during the same time period might result in an increase in your insurance bill. Unfortunately, because insurance companies follow different rules when it comes to raising the rates of policy holders who pay fines or are found guilty of a traffic violation, it's not always easy to know from an insurance perspective whether it makes sense to fight a ticket.
Before you can make an informed choice as to whether to pay, go to school, or fight, it makes sense to find out whether having the ticket on your record will result in your insurance rates being upped. The most direct approach is to call your insurance company and ask. Beware, though, that this approach risks alerting your insurer that you have been ticketed (something you don't want to do if you hope to successfully fight it or go to traffic school).
You won't lose your license for one or usually even two tickets for a routine moving violation like speeding, running a stoplight or stop sign, or many other garden-variety traffic scrapes. That is unless you are under 18 years of age, where you could lose your driving privileges in some states.
If you are more than 18 years of age and have had at least three previous convictions for moving violations in the past three to five years, you could lose your license (parking violations don't count). If you are charged with drunk, reckless, or hit-and-run driving, and have several previous convictions for moving violations, you can be pretty sure your right to continue to hold your license is in jeopardy. In most states suspensions are handled on a point system, with a license at risk of being pulled if a driver gets three or more tickets in a short period (see "How Point Systems Work," below). Check exact rules with your state's department of motor vehicles. Obviously, if you face losing your license, your incentive to fight a ticket goes way up no matter what your chances of winning.
No matter what type of point system is used, you are typically entitled to a hearing in front of a motor vehicle bureau hearing officer before your license can be revoked. At that hearing it is often a good idea to explain why at least some of the violations were the result of mistakes by the ticketing officer, but for some good reason you didn't fight the ticket. It also helps to explain the specific steps you've taken to drive more carefully and safely since the violations.
In states that assess points for accidents, this may be your first opportunity to show the accident wasn't your fault, was difficult to avoid, or was not part of an ongoing pattern of bad driving. Be prepared to do just that. Also, tell the hearing officers if it is essential that you commute to work or actually drive for your job, particularly if you will lose your job if you lose your license. Finally, if you drive 15,000 miles a year or more, you should mention this as well. Argue that since you drive more than average, your chances of getting tickets or having an accident are also above average.