When you get convicted of a traffic violation, you'll generally have to pay a fine and court costs. But for drivers who repeatedly break traffic laws, a ticket can also lead to license-related penalties. To keep track of driving violations and impose consequences on drivers who frequently get tickets, many states use demerit point systems (also called "traffic violation point systems"). With these point systems, each type of violation is assigned a certain number of points. Drivers who accumulate too many points face license suspension or other license-related consequences.
Most, but not all, states have traffic violation point systems. And the basics of how demerit points systems work are fairly similar among the states that use them. It's generally just the specific details that differ. In states with point systems, the law sets out rules on how points are accumulated, the point values for each moving violation, and the possible penalties for getting too many points.
Point values. Point values are generally based on the seriousness of the offense. For example, a state might assign one demerit point for a stop sign violation and something like six points for driving 40 miles per hour over the speed limit. Some states increase point values for certain aggravating factors like injuries or where a violation involves particular recklessness. It's also common for states to have zero-point traffic violations. For example, distracted driving (texting and cellphone use while driving) is a zero-point offense in a few states.
Point accumulation. After a driver pays a traffic ticket or is otherwise convicted for a traffic violation, the court sends notice to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) (or the state agency in charge of driver licensing). The DMV records the violation and assigns a certain number of points to the driver's record. Generally, the DMV counts only convictions, which can include out-of-state violations. Tickets that a driver gets dismissed through a diversion program or by participating in traffic school generally don't add points to the driver's record.
Traffic violation points don't stay on your record forever. States that have point systems also have rules for how long points remain on a driver's record.
In most states, traffic violation points simply expire after one, two, or three years. In other states, a driver's points are reduced by a certain percentage after a period of time without any violations. For example, in one state, a driver with no traffic convictions for a 12-month period will receive a 33%-point reduction. Some states also remove or reduce points after a driver completes a point-related license suspension or revocation period.
Each driver's record includes a running total of accumulated points. The DMV might send out a letter when points are added or make the information available online. As points are accumulated, states will take a variety of actions in an effort to discourage the driver from committing more traffic offenses.
Warning letters. Prior to imposing penalties, most states will send out a warning letter to the driver. These letters simply outline the driver's current point total and the penalties that could result if the driver accumulates more points.
Driver improvement clinics. In some states, drivers who accumulate a certain number of demerit points are required to complete a driver improvement clinic (like traffic school). These courses are typically a few hours long and are sometimes can be completed online. Generally, drivers who fail to complete a required course face license suspension.
DMV hearings. After multiple traffic violations and enough points, the DMV may send the driver a letter ordering them to appear for an in-person hearing. At this hearing, the hearing officer will typically review the driver's record and can order that the driver's license be suspended for a period of time.
License suspension. Instead of a hearing notice, the DMV in some states will simply issue a notice of license suspension when a driver reaches a certain number of points. The length of the suspension is typically based on the driver's point total and suspension history.
Suspended drivers are often able to petition the court or DMV for a hardship license. These licenses typically allow operation to and from places like work and school. However, some states don't issue hardship licenses for drivers suspended due to demerit points.
In many states, drivers can reduce their point total (or get a point credit) by voluntarily completing traffic school. However, this option is generally available only once every few years.