Why it pays to fight traffic tickets
The nature of traffic and laws in urban centres, combined with naïveté about how the system works, puts even model drivers at risk of an increase in insurance rates.
March 31st 2011, by Liz Metcalfe
Count yourself lucky if you’ve never been caught by a speed trap or seen a police car in your rear-view mirror with lights and siren blipping, signalling you to pull over. If it’s your first moving violation, it may not feel like a big deal to just pay a ticket and chalk it up to a lesson learned. We’re adults, and can admit mistakes, right?
You may want to rethink that option. Yes, it’s just one ticket and you can probably afford to pay it. But it takes three years for it to come off your record and two minor offences are seen as one major traffic offence in the eye of many insurers. If you happen to get a second ticket, can you afford an increase in your insurance premium over a number of years? Can you afford for your insurer to drop you if you receive a third, leaving you untouchable to all insurers except the ones who take high-risk clients?
Cost of ticket isn’t the issue
With many insurers, all it takes is two tickets to raise your premium. And it could take only two tickets and one car-door tap in a parking lot for your insurer to drop you – even if the tap caused no damage, was never reported by you or the other driver, never ended up in court, and never cost your insurer a penny. I once faced that situation. Had I not insisted on talking to higher and higher levels of managers until I found one who had the authority to say the door tap should not count against me, it would have constituted a “third strike” and I would have been dropped by my insurer for three “incidents” – including two tickets within three years, neither of which were serious enough to warrant demerit points. Yes, I shouldn’t have even mentioned the door-tap to my insurer. It could have been an expensive lesson.
It doesn’t take much to get a ticket
Even a careful driver could face another ticket at an inopportune moment. What if you forget your licence or insurance at home and get stopped when a tail light goes out?
“It used to be that if you forgot your driver’s licence you could take it to the police station with 48 hours, but that’s rarely an option any more,” says Chris Conway, a former police officer who joined the Ontario Provincial Police’s Toronto Detachment after 25 years with Toronto Police. Now Conway’s the president and founder of OTT Legal Services, which helps people like you and me fight traffic tickets.
The nature of traffic and laws in urban centres, combined with naïveté about how the system works, puts even model drivers at risk of an increase in insurance rates for receiving more than one ticket in three years. That is why it pays to fight every traffic ticket you get. Your inclination to be a good citizen and pay that first ticket could come back to haunt you.
The deck is stacked
The system works in favour of your insurer and the court. The problem is three-fold:
By paying a ticket you’re admitting guilt. Your guilty plea goes on your record, even if the offence didn’t warrant demerit points or you plea to a lesser offence to avoid court or demerit points.
Insurance companies care as much about convictions as demerit points. Even if you plead guilty to a lesser offence to avoid demerit points, you’re convicted of a moving offence. Two or more convictions for paying a ticket and you could be on the hook for higher insurance premiums for two or more years.
Even if you decide to fight the ticket, having a good explanation for the infraction is irrelevant to the court and it’s not the court’s role or responsibility to advise you of your best option or strategy.
Fighting tickets takes patience
In some jurisdictions, the system appears to discourage fighting tickets. Until 15 years ago, you could indicate on the back of a ticket received in Toronto that you intended to fight the ticket, mail it in, and get mailed your court date. You could also ask to have your case heard at night. Neither option is available any more. Now, if you get a ticket, you have 14 days to go to an office, take a number and wait for your turn to go to a window and say you intend to plead not guilty. Your court date then gets mailed to you. Night court hasn’t been an option for at least two years. So you need to take a day off work to stand in line to register to be sent a court date, and take a second day off to appear in court.
Barry Randell, Director of Toronto Court Services, says no other municipality in Ontario offers night court and requiring people to appear to register for a court date provides an option other than going to court. “You might be able to get the charge dropped by talking to someone” when you come to register for your court date, he says, or plead guilty to a lesser charge. That’s fine for parking tickets and it relieves stress on our court system. But it’s rare for a moving violation charge to be dropped, so to avoid court you’ll likely be asked to plead guilty to a lesser charge. That’s a conviction and not an option when guarding your insurance premium.
What to expect at court
Regardless of the best intentions of those within the system just trying to do their job, they do those jobs under pressure and within very tight budgetary and time constraints. Prosecutors carry brutal case loads. That results in a focus on moving people through the system as efficiently as possible. They’re not there to help you understand your options.
At traffic court, prosecutors greet you at the door to the courtroom and, depending on the offence, may ask you if you’re willing to plead to a lesser charge in exchange for no demerit points. You may think the prosecutor is helping you – but the object is to get your plea as quickly and easily as possible and process the next person. If you ask if the officer who ticketed you is there to testify against you, they have to tell you – but you need to ask; there’s no obligation to tip the odds in your favour by telling you. If you don’t ask and the officer isn’t there, you’ve just pled guilty to a case that would have been tossed.
In our legal system, most tickets are won on technicalities. Providing any reason for the action that generated the ticket will be recorded as an admission of guilt. If you intend to represent yourself, it takes a lot of research to understand technicalities and how to use them.
“If I were to get a ticket I would go to the court before my case came up and listen to what happens and see how the court works, says Sgt. David Woodford, Media Officer for the Ontario Provincial Police. “It’s like test-driving a car.”
Conway’s OTT Legal Services, Red Line Legal Services, and Torontotraffictickets.com (among others) sprang up to represent people without time or know-how to represent themselves. Most employ former officers and paralegals who know the ins and outs of traffic court. Do the research: some are more successful at winning than others. Fighting a ticket through one of these companies can cost $400 to $1,000 (and sometimes more), depending on the charge. That’s not a small sum. But it can be worth it when weighed against how much your premium could go up or the cost of an insurer dropping you.