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Avoid the costly long-term effects of a ticket

If you’ve ever been pulled over by a police officer and experienced that sudden panic over how to conduct yourself, here are some  tips to help avoid increases in your auto insurance premiums. By Laura T. Coffey.

The wailing siren. The flashing lights. The sense of impending doom. Is this bringing back unpleasant memories? Sorry about that.

If you’ve ever been pulled over by a police officer and experienced that sudden panic over how to conduct yourself, you’re likely to find this column useful.

And if you ever get a ticket at some point down the road, the tips provided here can help you avoid increases in your auto insurance premiums for years to come.

1. Don’t try anything funny. This isn’t the time to be argumentative — or, even worse, make the officer worry about whether or not you might be dangerous. Pull over promptly and carefully, turn your engine off, roll down your driver’s side window and keep your hands clearly visible on your steering wheel. Be excessively polite, and only go fumbling around for documents when you’re asked to do so.

2. Turn your vehicle into a blab-free zone. Concentrate on saying as little as possible. You’re under no obligation to admit to anything specific; when asked why you think you were pulled over, you can simply say, “I don't know.” Practice saying such non-committal phrases as “I see” and “Hmmm.” The objective is to avoid shooting yourself in the foot in case you need to go to court.

3. ‘Can I get a warning?’ It doesn't hurt to ask for one, especially if you haven’t been pulled over for years.

4. Resist throwing in the towel. If you do get a ticket, the simplest and least time-consuming option available to you is to pay it. For minor violations that won’t stay on your record, such as parking tickets, this approach usually makes sense — but with many moving violations, paying the ticket would be an admission of guilt. Next stop: Higher insurance rates.

5. Consider traffic school. You can request this option without admitting guilt. It’s time-consuming and costly — you typically have to attend school for a full day, pay for the schooling, pay an administrative court fee and pay the original ticket amount — but on the up side, points don’t appear on your record and in most cases the incident won’t affect your insurance rates. Rules vary from state to state, so check with your local court to clarify what traffic school would do for your particular situation.

6. You can go to court. For starters, if you decide to fight your ticket in court and the officer who ticketed you doesn’t show up, presto! You’ll almost certainly win. But of course, the officer may indeed show up, and then you’ve got some talking to do. (You also can request a trial by mail.)

7. Think about how to plead. If you plead “guilty with explanation,” the judge might decide to reduce your penalty, but the offense could still appear on your record and lead to insurance rate hikes. Unless you’re confident a judge or prosecutor will drop or reduce charges in exchange for a guilty plea, the advice from experts in this arena is to plead not guilty.

8. Think about how to defend yourself. You can try studying the exact wording of the law you’re charged under, disputing the officer’s recollections — (Maybe his view was obstructed? Maybe he didn’t stop the correct vehicle?) — or explaining the valid reasons behind whatever you did. (Note: Valid reasons don’t include talking on your cell phone or failing to realize what the speed limit was.)

9. Track down the officer’s notes. These notes will document whatever you said in that nervous rush of energy when you got pulled over. (Re-read tip number 2.) To avoid surprises, you can request a copy of these notes in advance of your court date.

10. Show up prepared. Arrive armed with relevant diagrams and photos if at all possible. If you’re a minor, bring a parent with you. Your family could impress the judge by approaching the court appearance with a serious, responsible attitude.