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Want Lower Car Insurance? Clean Up Your Driving Record

By Aaron Crowe

Police officer writing a traffic citation while an unfortunate driver looks on from his car.

Police officer writing a traffic citation while an unfortunate driver looks on from his car.

Driving recklessly can be expensive. A driving record with speeding violations, unresolved fix-it tickets or a drunk driving conviction can be costly not only for the court fees, but can drive up your auto insurance rates and make getting insurance difficult.

There are ways to get around that. Clearing your driving record after such mistakes can keep your insurance rates down by making it look like you never had the problems in the first place, giving you the same insurance rates as someone without a spotty driving record.

Ways to clear your record include contesting tickets, taking a driver safety course and asking that the violation be expunged, among others that we’ll detail later.

“It can be life changing, if you have three to five speeding tickets,” says Troy Thompson, a broker at Pinnacle Insurance Agency of Minnesota. “It can make getting insurance very difficult.”

Algorithms that insurance companies use to determine how many driving infractions cause insurance rates to increase differ among companies, Thompson says. Having a clean driving record for five years is preferable, he says, because that’s how far back many insurers check driving records. Some only look back three years.

Violations can stick around for years

Most simple traffic violations stay on your record for around three years, though it can vary by state and type of violation, says John Bowman, communications director for the National Motorists Association, a driver advocacy group. Serious violations such as a DUI, or driving under the influence, can stay on for 10 years or longer.

In Florida, traffic violations can “age off” and come off a driving record in three to five years, depending on the type of ticket and if there are no other violations during that time, says Jordan Ostroff, a criminal defense attorney in Florida.

“The minute they get convicted of a traffic offense, even on a first one, their insurance rates will go up a little bit,” Ostroff says.

One speeding ticket for 5 mph over the limit may not drive up insurance rates, or may only drive them up a small amount, but driving 20 mph over the speed limit or getting multiple tickets could cause your rates to go up 30 percent or more.

Start by fighting tickets

Fighting every ticket is the first place to start so that you don’t have to try to clear your driving record after the fact.

“The only way to really resolve a traffic ticket is to contest it in court,” Bowman says. “If you simply pay the fine, you have admitted guilt, which means the ticket will go on your driving record and could increase your insurance rates. Accumulate enough tickets over a given period of time and you could lose your license.”

The NMA encourages drivers to contest every ticket they get. “This helps keep the traffic justice system honest and gives people a fair shot,” Bowman says.

“If the officer doesn’t show up to testify, the defendant should ask for a dismissal of the case, which will likely be granted,” he says. “That’s about as good as it gets.”

Thompson, the insurance agent, says he’d rather go to court and contest every speeding ticket, and even pay the fee and fine if he can keep it off his driving record. Judges and prosecutors may be more likely to allow a driver with one or fewer tickets already on their record to keep a ticket off if they pay a fine and agree not to have any more violations for the next year, Thompson says.

“It’s smart to do what you can to have a clean record, but it’s also smart to fight it and keep it off,” he says of contesting tickets.

In the long run, paying a lawyer to contest a ticket and get it dismissed can be less expensive than higher auto insurance rates, Ostroff says.

“You’re always going to pay less if you pay the ticket immediately, but you’re going to get the fine and you’re going to get the points,” he says.

Even if you know you were driving too fast, there can be ways to get a speeding ticket dismissed — but you have to start by fighting the ticket in court, Ostroff says.

A judge can dismiss a ticket because the officer doesn’t show up in court, something is wrong on the ticket, or the radar isn’t calibrated, among others, he says.

Ask for expungement

You could wait for penalty points to come off your record in three to five years when they expire. Or you can ask a court to expunge the violation from your record, provided you haven’t had any moving violations since then or had your license suspended.

Californians can apply for a “dismissal” of charges with a two-page form and up to $150 in fees, and it can take a few weeks to a few months to get approved, says Christopher McCann, a criminal defense attorney and DUI lawyer in Southern California.

Only misdemeanors and felonies can be dismissed from someone’s court record, McCann says. Infractions aren’t criminal convictions and “there really isn’t a record that can be cleared with respect to infractions,” he says.

Any criminal conviction for which probation was successfully completed without violation will get approved for dismissal under California law, McCann says, with a few exceptions. Those include hit and run, DUI, DUI with injury, driving on a suspended license, reckless driving, evading, and speed contest.

They could be removed by proving “good cause,” he says. That can include not being able to get hired in your job search because you have a criminal record, or applying for admission to a school. It’s up to the judge’s discretion.

In Texas, a speeding ticket can still remain on your DMV record even if you were never convicted of the charge, says Paul Saputo, a criminal defense lawyer in Dallas. To get it expunged, a “deferred adjudication” petition must be filed with a court.

If a plea deal is reached on the charge, for example, and the defendant completes the terms of the deal and receives a deferred adjudication, then it isn’t on their driving record, Saputo says.

But without the expungement, even without a conviction, the ticket could still be on their record and auto insurance companies could find it and hold it against them by charging them higher rates. Some insurers may check for arrests and not convictions, he says.

“Take as much out of that public record as you can and you’re going to be better off,” Saputo says.

Take a safety course

Most states allow drivers to take a driver safety course to erase penalty points or dismiss tickets, depending on the violation. These are usually for minor offenses, such as moderate speeding, and not for criminal moving violations like a DUI.

Florida allows drivers to go to driving school up to five times in their lifetime to have tickets knocked off, Ostroff says.

DUIs tougher to remove

Most insurers will drop you if you have a DUI conviction, Thompson says. Getting one removed from your criminal record can be difficult, if not impossible.

Ostroff, the Florida attorney, says he’s never seen a DUI be removed from someone’s record. But Florida law allows a DUI to be charged as reckless driving with alcohol as a factor — also called a “wet reckless” — which allows the case to be sealed and expunged from a record 10 years later. Such defendants may have to pay higher fines or do extra community service to get this option, he says.

A DUI arrest will inevitably lead to a suspended license, says Saputo, the Dallas attorney, though your insurer may not learn about it immediately. They may not check your driving record until the policy renewal time arrives, leaving you with insurance coverage until then.

Saputo’s advice to people arrested for driving drunk is to not admit anything, because a DUI conviction can lead to all kinds of problems, including financial ones.

“People have a tendency to plead guilty to DUIs without knowing if they’ve done anything illegal,” he says, such as if they have a blood-alcohol limit of .08 percent — the level many states set as legally drunk.

“If you want to increase your insurance rates a lot, plead guilty to a DWI,” Saputo says of a driving while intoxicated charge.

Minor violations

“Fix-it” tickets for a broken taillight and other fixable problems should be addressed quickly. If you get to many of these types of tickets, they could be a red flag to your insurer when they check your driving record that you’re not a responsible driver.

Violations such as parking tickets are non-moving violations and have no impact on your driving record or insurance rates.

The best solution, of course, is to be a safe driver and maintain a clean driving record. That may not be easy, but it beats going to traffic school on a Saturday, hiring a lawyer or using any of these other methods to clear past mistakes from your driving record.