Traffic Ticket, Citation: What’s the Difference & What Do I Do Next?

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You’re heading out of town for a 3-day weekend. No one is on the road and you mentally congratulate yourself for being smart enough to leave so early. 

Things are going so well, in fact, you don’t notice the parked highway patrol officer until it’s too late. Instinctively, you look down at your speedometer and then up at your rearview mirror. As the police officer pulls onto the highway behind you, you realize: I’m getting a speeding ticket. But the officer ends up giving you a citation instead.

Is there a difference between the two?

Nope. No difference. Simply a matter of word choice. In casual conversation, we call getting written up during a traffic stop a ticket. For legal purposes, the actual document itself is a citation (also called a Uniform Citation). The insurance industry is full of phrases and words that mean the same thing. Unfortunately, too many words can create unnecessary confusion. So let’s clear up what a traffic citation is and does right now!

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What exactly is a citation?

Let’s say you are stopped and suspected of being guilty of a traffic violation. 

Violations vary by jurisdiction but include things like not obeying traffic signals and signs, driving without the proper insurance, failing to use a seatbelt, etc.

Instead of bringing you into court then and there, the officer can issue a citation. A citation is a legal document. This document describes what infractions you are being cited for, what the consequences are, your options for responding to these consequences, and how long you have to respond before you face additional consequences. The typical resolution includes paying a fine, providing proof of insurance, or making a court appearance to contest a citation that you don’t agree with.

Citations can be given to you as a piece of paper. However, e-citations are becoming the norm. Instead of being handed a citation in paper form, you may sign a citation electronically on the officer’s tablet and receive a copy of it in your email.

How important is it to keep this slip of paper or digital file?

Very! Not only is a citation a legal document, but a citation also requires that you take action by a certain date or face additional consequences. These can include additional fines, being ordered to court, or even having your driver’s license suspended or revoked. There are a lot of reasons you may be tempted to misplace, delete, or even accidentally throw away a citation should you ever receive one. Here are a few:

  1. A citation can be mistaken for a receipt. Some of us can easily mistake a citation for just another receipt piling up in our glovebox, kitchen counter, or inbox. The layout, font, paper size, etc. can be very similar if we don’t look closely when we are in throw-away mode.
  2. A citation can make us feel bad. They are a physical reminder of a mistake or a poor choice we have made. Maybe we don’t want our parents or significant other to see it until we are ready to explain. Or, it’s going to cost us and we simply don’t know how we will pay.
  3. A citation can be easy to forget. For some, the reason we get a ticket is the same reason we may lose it. People who are inattentive, overwhelmed, or disorganized (for example) may have a harder time than others remembering just how important the piece of paper or email is.
  4. You may disagree with the citation. Everyone makes mistakes. If you think the citation is a mistake, you may be tempted to blow it off. Or, you may feel you have no other recourse but to give in. Remember (and this is written on the citation) that you have the right to contest it in court. Especially since a citation on your driving record can raise your insurance rates, you may want to get legal advice on whether contesting the citation would be a better course of action. When law enforcement hands you a citation and you to sign it, you are not agreeing that you are guilty. You are simply agreeing that you received the citation and understand what your responsibilities are regarding it.

What to do? Some advice about citations from those of us who have learned our lessons the hard way

  1. Take care of your citation quickly.
  2. Keep the citation in a safe and visible place.
  3. Don’t see the citation as a failure but as a positive learning experience that can help you become a better, safer, more organized driver.
  4. Seek legal advice or make an informed choice to contest the citation if you disagree with the citation. But always respond by the date outlined in the citation.

How do citations affect car insurance quotes?

This all depends on what you are cited for. 

To begin, traffic citations fall under one of two categories: a non-moving violation (aka parking violation) or a moving violation.

Moving violations have license points assigned to them. For example, here are some examples of points assigned to drivers when they disobey traffic laws related to moving violations in the state of Idaho as of 2018:

  • Following too close: Three (3) points
  • Inattentive driving: Three (3) points
  • Duty upon striking unattended vehicle: Four (4) points

Insurance companies consider these points when determining your car insurance rates. The more points you have, the higher a risk you are to insure—which affects your insurance rate. Industry convention is that points accrued on your record (or any other driving incident or insurance claim) from the past seven years are fair game.

How do I get points to go away or be removed from my driving record?

Though the rules vary by state, points can drop off your record over time, and there are ways to actively earn the ability to remove them (depending on the violation).

In Idaho, for example, you can reduce your point total by three points once every three years by taking a defensive driving course at a local or online traffic school.

More serious offenses (like being convicted of a DUI) also affect insurance rates but are weighed as a convictionConvictions and other criminal charges related to driving cannot be removed from your motor vehicle record.

If you want to know how many points are currently on your driving record or what opportunities are available in your state to lower these points, see your local department of motor vehicles (DMV) in person or online.

Citations aren’t the end of the world. Most of us have been stopped at least once for a traffic violation. But do know they can affect your insurance rates, should be taken care of quickly and can be forgiven from your record over time. 

Everyone needs car insurance, and everyone deserves it at rates they can afford. Many auto insurance companies offer non-standard, state minimum rates specifically for drivers who don’t have sterling driving records.

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Jeannette Wisniewski is a technology writer whose passion is encouraging people to engage with technology by making it more understandable and more interesting. Though she enjoys writing business copy for a wide range of subjects, she is most inspired by emerging tech and its applications. She is a graduate of San Jose State University, a Georgia Peach at heart, and happy to call Boise, ID home.