Image: Woman sitting in car after being pulled over by police officer © Mike Watson, moodboard, Corbis

Dear Credit Score Report,

I received a photo radar ticket in a state other than the one in which I reside. I have not yet paid the citation, which is labeled a civil penalty rather than a criminal penalty (since photo tickets apparently are hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt).

I have received a letter saying that if I don't pay the penalty, the county will report it to a collection agency, which will then affect my credit. Can my credit actually get dinged for this? What do traffic safety and credit have to do with each other? -- James

Hey James,

You should pay that citation. When an unpaid traffic ticket gets turned over to a collection agency, the driver's credit scores may fall, perhaps substantially.

Traffic safety and credit may not seem related, but think of that ticket as a debt owed to the county that issued the citation. Just like any lender, the county wants its money and will take steps to collect. Unfortunately, if you still don't pay, the municipality appears ready to use a powerful technique to more emphatically urge you to do so -- one that isn't limited to traffic citations.

"If a municipality turns a consumer debt, such as a moving violation, parking ticket or library fine, over to a collections firm, and the collections firm reports it as a collection account to the credit reporting companies, it may have an impact on an individual's credit score," says Steven Katz, a spokesman for credit bureau TransUnion.

Because lower credit scores make borrowing more difficult and costly, that risk makes for a more persuasive argument for you to pay.

According to experts, your situation isn't entirely unusual. "Many large municipalities are reportedly sending long-overdue traffic citations, and even overdue library fines, to collections agencies in order to recover those fees," says Craig Watts, a spokesman for FICO, the creator of the most widely used credit scoring model. In other words, getting a ticket isn't what hurts your credit scores, but rather waiting so long to make a payment that it ends up in collections.

"While traffic citations aren't reported to credit bureaus, accounts in collection are often reported to bureaus," Watts says.

Collection accounts that appear on your credit reports will damage your credit scores because they suggest an irresponsible borrower who may not repay future debts. "Because accounts in collections are strong predictors of future credit risk, the appearance of a collections account on your credit report could have a serious negative impact to your FICO score," says Watts.

Just how bad can the damage get? FICO says the impact varies, depending on such factors as the age of the collections account and other delinquent accounts, but indicates that borrowers with high FICO scores could experience nearly 100-point declines. Consumer advocates say they've seen such damage firsthand. "I have seen scores fall off by almost 100 points when a collections account goes on the credit report," says Linda Sherry, the national-priorities director for nonprofit consumer rights group Consumer Action.