Image: Speeding ticket © Corbis

Related topics: insurance, auto insurance, traffic tickets, accident, insurance rates

I hadn't been stopped for speeding in more than 20 years.

Call me dull, but I honestly do like to poke along. Driving through the high plains of New Mexico this winter, though, I apparently missed a 40 mph sign where a lonesome highway ducked between buildings before re-emerging into open sky.

Moments later, two officers stood by my pickup, eyeing my out-of-state plates with a bit more satisfaction than seemed appropriate.

"You can pay the $60 now, or" -- and here, the older officer actually smiled -- "show up at the court date next month."

I was tempted to pay. It was only $60.

But it's a good thing I didn't. If I was thinking the ticket was only $60, then I was thinking wrong. The real cost of a ticket always comes later, when your car insurance company finds out. Most people know that.

But do you know how much a ticket can ultimately cost while it taints your record anywhere from three to six years?

Multiply that ticket by 30

I talked my way out of that New Mexico ticket. The speed trap seemed unfair and I was in a talkative mood.

I wasn't aware that a single ticket could have cost me my safe-driver discount and jacked up my premium by 15 percent, or $372 over the next six years, more than six times the speeding fine.

But that's nothing. My auto insurance rates are already well below average, and I have an old beater that spends most of its time in the driveway. And my home state -- like several other states and some insurers -- ignores the first infraction.

What happened to a family member may be more typical. He already had one ticket on the family policy, but with two drivers, they doubled their risk of a second infraction. When his wife rolled through a stop sign, the other shoe dropped.

A 30 percent surcharge kicked in, and it set them back the price of a used car: $4,000 over six years -- 32 times the amount of the $125 rolling-stop ticket.

"That doesn't sound unreasonable. That sounds about right," says Ted Hollander, a lawyer who has defended drivers in traffic court for 14 years. His firm, The Ticket Clinic, makes its business not because people want to evade the fines, but because they can't afford the 40, 50, or even 100 percent increase in their auto insurance premiums.

"That's why hiring a lawyer, paying him $150, is the deal of the century," he says.

More tickets, more accidents?

The insurance industry has good reason to be wary of leadfoots.

Traffic accidents cost the industry tens of billions of dollars annually, and its analysts agree that drivers with traffic violations are more likely to be in accidents. Nearly one-third of fatal accidents in the United States are due to speeding, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "If we ignore that, and all of our competitors don't, then we're writing policies for the people who do tend to violate traffic laws that are (priced) too low," says Dick Luedke, a spokesman for State Farm, the nation's largest auto insurer.

Not everyone thinks the insurance industry's formula is fair, though.