They're Great At Making Money. Their Effectiveness Is Less Certain.
So your Fast and Furious driving techniques finally caught up to you.
You were pulled over in full view of a steady procession of commuting rubberneckers and got a ticket with an as bad-as-you-feared dollar figure on it. And as your pulse settles down, a bigger reality sets in: That ticket can mean points on your driver’s record and a huge potential increase in your insurance rates that could haunt you for years to come.
You could fight it and take your chances in court. Then again, you could simply fess up, pay the fine and duke it out with your insurance company. Or, in many states, you could give away an exasperating sum of your free nights to traffic school to atone for your traffic sins and potentially write off a portion of the points or fine—as well as possibly appease your insurance agent.
But is signing up for traffic school really worth it? Is the whole thing just a big money-making racket? And does it even work in the first place? The answer is, well… complicated.
A search of business census statistics reveals there are nearly 2,300 companies across the U.S. offering automobile driving and driver education classes. Of course, this isn’t terribly surprising given the thousands of “traffic school” Google listings cluttering up the internet. But how do you know if it’s worth it for someone in your situation?
The first step is to ensure that traffic school will actually help clean up your record and keep you in good graces with your insurance company.
“In many states, you need a court or a judge’s approval before you can take a traffic school or ‘defensive driving’ course,” said Steven Katz, an attorney based in Columbus, Ohio. “That approval, however, essentially comes with a guarantee that the court will waive all or part of your fines and fees, as well as waive the points that would go on your record.”
Katz recommends making a phone call first to your insurance company to verify that taking the course will keep your insurance rates low. And, in fact, he says traffic class is most often worth it.
“Even if the cost of the class is more than what the driver will save in fines and/or insurance premium increases, it may be worth it to the driver to pay the extra money to avoid points on their license,” Katz says.
In some states, points against your driving record are as big a consideration as potentially skyrocketing insurance rates.
In New York, for example, accumulating 11 points in an 18-month period means a driver’s license is automatically suspended, says Glenn Kurtzrock, a criminal and traffic ticket defense attorney in Hauppauge, N.Y. He says taking an accredited defensive driving class alone can deduct four points from a driver’s record.
“I personally take the class every three years in order to reduce my insurance rates,” Kurtzrock says.
Matt Pinsker, a traffic defense attorney in Glen Allen, Virginia, says driving school isn’t always offered as an option—so drivers should take it when they have the chance.
“Getting a traffic school referral is a privilege, not a right,” Pinsker says.
Pinsker also suggests consulting a lawyer to ensure you get access to traffic school and the considerable relief it can offer.
“A good traffic defense attorney will be familiar with the local rules, and will save your time and money from being wasted,” Pinsker says. “And a cleaner record increases the chances of leniency down the road, further keeping your premiums down.”
If your interaction with the police involves the potential of major fines, loss of license or jail time, professional legal help is definitely a priority. For a more minor speeding ticket or traffic violation, you also have the option of disputing that ticket in person in traffic court—although your success there depends on a lot of factors.
First, of course, is the often-hoped-for instance that the officer who issued the ticket won’t show up. Sure, it could happen—but Katz says the more realistic hope should be getting lucky with a friendly and understanding prosecutor. To best capitalize on that chance, Katz suggests digging into your closet for a nice tie, showing up on time, and possibly even agreeing to pay the full fine (the smaller battle) in order to get a break on your driving record.
“Oftentimes, a prosecutor will agree to waive the points if the driver pays the entire fine,” Katz says. “And that may also keep the driver’s insurance premiums lower, because they will not have the points on their record.”
And the truth is you may want to sign up for traffic school even if you’re planning on fighting your ticket, says Jeremy Rovinsky, Dean of the National Paralegal College and a judge for Maricopa County in Phoenix, Ariz.
“At least in my court system, the completion of defensive driving school usually means that we throw out the original charge, and the person maintains a clean record,” Rovinsky says. “For those reasons, defensive driving school is an attractive option.”
Points and premiums aside, there’s a more fundamental question around whether traffic school programs will really make you a safer driver.
Unfortunately, bad drivers will largely continue to be bad drivers whether they attended traffic school or not, says researcher Stephen Michael.
Studying the issue for the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, Michael reviewed results from six states that offer educational intervention programs. He found that more than 80 percent of those who attend traffic school received another citation within a year.
And what created the biggest reduction in citations and crashes? License suspensions.
In other words, that dreaded date with traffic school could be a lot worse.