Citation vs Ticket: Understand the Difference

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Every driver dreads the day they see the telltale lights of a police vehicle in their rearview. Maybe you were going a couple miles over the speed limit, or perhaps your tail light is out. Either way, you have a police officer knocking on your driver's side window.

But when that happens, do they hand you a "ticket" or a "citation"? And what is the difference between the two? Here is a rundown on how these legal documents work and their potential consequences.

Citation vs Ticket: What's the Difference?

A citation and a ticket are the same thing and are often used interchangeably. "Ticket" is the casual way we refer to them. But for legal purposes, the slip you receive from law enforcement personnel is called a "citation."

You may receive them in the form of a small piece of paper on your windshield. Or, these days, you may receive an e-citation instead. In this situation, you sign the slip electronically using an officer's tablet, which then gets sent to your email.

Differences between a citation and a ticket

The Different Types of Citations and Tickets

Traffic citations and tickets are legal documents stating that a person has been charged with a motor vehicle violation by a law enforcement officer. The two terms can be used interchangeably.

There are different types of citations with accompanying potential consequences.

Failure to address them could result in the following penalties, among others:

  • Additional fines

  • Increased insurance premiums

  • Criminal charges

Citations and tickets can fall into two categories:

  • Moving traffic violations: This occurs when the car is in motion.

  • Non-moving traffic violations: These usually pertain to parked or non-moving vehicles and poorly maintained motor vehicles.

Depending on what you did, the circumstances, and how severe the violation is, the police officer may only write a warning.

Moving traffic violations include:

  • Running a stop sign or red light: Cars must perform a full stop. A rolling stop can result in a traffic violation.

  • Driving under the influence: Driving a motor vehicle while being impaired by drugs or alcohol may result in a motor vehicle accident and can have devastating consequences.

  • Going faster than the speed limit: Most states have laws about driving reasonably safe according to road conditions. Driving above the speed limit could result in different penalties according to the state.

  • Failure to use turn signals: Not using turn signals to indicate a merge or turn could result in an accident or be considered reckless driving.

  • Following too closely: Driving too close behind a car could impair your ability to brake in time, should the car in front of you brake suddenly.

  • Failure to yield right-of-way: Not yielding to another vehicle can be considered reckless behavior, especially if you're not paying attention to the road.

  • Texting while driving: Distracted drivers may overlook other drivers, roadblocks, pedestrians and more. Some states have laws against texting while driving.

  • Driving without a driver's license: In some states, drivers caught driving without a license may face hefty fines.

  • Driving a car at night or in adverse weather conditions without headlights: Every driver must follow a duty of care towards other drivers. This involves keeping your car maintained, following traffic laws and driving with headlights on when visibility is low.

Non-moving traffic violations include:

  • Parking violations: This includes parking too close to a fire hydrant or stop sign, parking in a no-parking zone, parking in a fire lane and more.

  • Expired parking meters: If your parking meter has expired, you will likely receive a non-moving traffic citation.

  • Car safety violations: This can include driving with a missing license plate, broken headlights, darkly tinted windows or producing excessive muffler noise, among other violations.

  • Expired vehicle registration and inspection: In most states, drivers must present a valid registration and inspection certificate. If you get caught driving without proper documentation, you will likely get a fine.

Traffic laws can change from state to state, they can even change based on the city you are driving in.

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What To Do if You Get a Traffic Citation and A Ticket

It's definitely nerve-wracking when you get pulled over for a moving violation or speeding. But walking yourself through what you need to do will help you handle the stress.

First, do your best to keep a level head. The officer will likely ask for your driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance. Do your best to answer any questions clearly and politely. Try to record every detail of the violation and police interaction while you still remember everything.

In some cases, you will need to make a court appearance after you receive the citation. Less severe offenses take place in traffic court, whereas more severe offenses take place in criminal court. The traffic ticket itself will likely dictate the specific reason and the court date. Failing to show up can result in significant fines, a misdemeanor, or even jail time. So, avoid it at all costs.

Overall, you want to get your citation resolved as soon as possible. That might require showing up in court or paying off the ticket fine. But if you feel like you were incorrectly ticketed, then you can dispute it in court.

How Does a Citation or a Ticket Impact Your Car Insurance Premiums?

Getting caught parking in a no-parking zone (non-moving violation) or speeding (moving violation) can result in more than just traffic citations and fines. You face ongoing penalties, like higher car insurance premiums, when you violate traffic laws.

A less-than-stellar driving record could indicate that you're a high-risk driver, meaning you may be more likely to file an insurance claim throughout the year and cost your insurance provider with each claim.

Therefore, being cited for a moving or a non-moving traffic violation could increase your insurance by quite a bit, depending on the state you live in and the nature of your traffic violation.

One single traffic violation could cause your car insurance premium to go up. This includes minor traffic violations that don't involve a moving vehicle. Higher-risk violations like speeding and driving under the influence can cause significant increases in your insurance costs.

Basic moving violations, like running a red light, earn you a ticket that includes penalties and fines.

Traffic Citation and A Ticket FAQ

Does a Citation Go On Your Driving Record?

Generally, citations do go on your driving record. This means they will be reported on your driving history. They typically stay there for an average of three years for first-time offenses in most states. However, repeat offenses may remain on your record for longer. In some cases, they may last between five and ten years or, in zero-tolerance states, permanently.

How Much Is a Traffic Citation?

The average cost of a first offense traffic citation in the U.S. is often quoted as $150. However, the cost for a traffic citation varies from state to state. For example, in Pennsylvania, you can earn a $45 fine for driving 45 mph in a 35 mph zone. Or, if they drive 11 mph or above in a construction and maintenance area, they will lose their license for 15 days. However, in New Jersey, a speeding ticket costs between $85 and $260, depending on how far over the speed limit you drive. Remember: fines aren't the only price you pay. The spike in your average insurance premiums can also be costly.

Can You Pay a Citation Without Going To Court?

Yes, it is possible to pay a citation without going to court. In this case, you plead guilty to the offense and waive your rights. Typically, there is a place on the back of the traffic ticket to do this. Then you mail it and the fine payment, as well as potential court costs, to the court. Or, alternatively, you can sign it and pay the fine directly at the Court clerk's office. You must do this prior to the court date. However, you generally can't do this if you're involved in an accident or charged with a misdemeanor or felony. If you fail to show up to court or pay the fine, the court may issue a warrant for your arrest. Thus, resulting in additional charges.

How Long Does it Take To Complete Traffic School After a Traffic Violation?

Traffic school can be an easy way to reduce points on your driver's license and avoid potential auto insurance spikes. But the length of traffic school tends to vary between states. For example, you'll find courses in Nevada are a minimum of five hours for two or fewer violations within a set timeframe. Three or more violations result in an eight-hour course. Or, in Idaho, the minimum is a six-hour course. Both can reduce up to three points from your driving record and come with certain eligibility requirements.

Can You Take Traffic School Online for Traffic Violations?

It depends. For instance, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation doesn't regulate online traffic school. A judge may still allow you in this case, but you have to ask permission. Look for schools and courses that are state-approved.

Car Insurance for Less Than Perfect Drivers

No one wants to get a citation: It results in potentially high fine costs, demerits on your driving record, and increased car insurance costs.

The best solution is to avoid reckless driving from the start. That way, you minimize your chances of consequences involving law enforcement. But most drivers in the U.S. have their license for years and years; you're bound to receive a citation at some point.

Once again, safe driving will likely reduce the overall consequences. But actively addressing the issue can help soften the impact. Pay your fines on time, show up in court, and take classes if necessary – you'll be better for it.

If you want to see if you can find an insurer who can offer you a better rate than the one you have now, you can get a free quote by just entering your zip code below and answering a few questions.

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