What to Do If You Can’t Pay a Speeding Ticket

How to manage expensive traffic citation fines and fees through reductions, payment plans, and other alternatives.

Speeding tickets and other traffic citations tend to occur at the worst possible time. Nobody thinks about traffic tickets when earmarking money for monthly expenses. However, even if you don't have the cash on hand to pay a ticket, procrastination usually doesn't improve your situation. Unpaid traffic citations can lead to serious penalties and consequences.

But there are almost always ways to handle a traffic ticket that don't require an immediate bank-breaking payment. This article outlines some of the options you have when you can't pay for a traffic ticket and some of the consequences you might face for ignoring a ticket.

What Happens If You Ignore a Speeding Ticket

If you don't pay a parking ticket on time, the fine usually goes up. The same thing typically happens with speeding and other moving violation tickets—the fine increases if you don't pay by the due date. However, unpaid moving violations can also result in much more serious problems.

Missing Your Court Date

Moving violation tickets usually specify a court date. (In some states, you can go to traffic court any day before the date specified on the ticket.) Generally, you can avoid having to go to court if you pay your fine prior to the court date.

But when you miss your court date (without paying the fine), that's when a ticket can really start to cause problems for you.

Failure to Appear Notices

If the driver fails to pay the ticket fine or show up in court by the due date, the court will typically issue a Failure to Appear (FTA) notice. Once the court issues an FTA, the driver usually must come to court to resolve the ticket. Paying the ticket by mail or internet may no longer be an option.

However, the laws of each state are different. So if you know the court issued an FTA, it's best to contact the court directly or talk to an attorney in your area about the process for getting the FTA dealt with.

License Suspension

An unresolved FTA will typically result in the driver's license being suspended until the driver appears to resolve the FTA and ticket. Suspension doesn't always happen when the court issues the FTA, but it will happen eventually if the driver doesn't take any action to deal with the situation.

Also, continuing to drive after being suspended can lead to further suspension and jail time.

Fines Start Multiplying

Generally, the amount you'll have to pay for a ticket will increase if you don't pay it by the due date and don't show up in court. The amount by which it will increase depends on where you received the ticket. But, in some states, missing a due date will add up to $300 to your fine.

It's also common for the court to refer unpaid tickets to collection agencies. Once that happens, the amount you have to pay will typically increase steadily over time. So the longer you wait, the more you'll have to pay.

New Criminal Charges

Although it doesn't always happen, a driver can be charged with a crime for failing to appear in court. Whereas a traffic violation will normally be an infraction, an FTA charge is generally a misdemeanor criminal offense, which carries possible jail time.

Arrest Warrants

In some situations, failing to appear or pay the fine can result in the judge issuing a warrant for the driver's arrest.

If you know you have an arrest warrant, it's a good idea to talk to an attorney about how best to handle the situation. Generally, it's possible to resolve a warrant without actually having to go to jail.

Options for Dealing With a Ticket

Fortunately, traffic laws are created to keep roads safe, not to punish drivers. Also, judges and prosecutors are generally pretty flexible when someone takes responsibility but is struggling financially. Here are some of the alternative programs and methods that are often available for handling traffic ticket fines.

Get Your Fine Lowered or Request Community Service

The fines for speeding tickets are usually set by statute. However, in many states, the statutes specify fine ranges or maximums. Traffic court judges typically get the final say on what a driver's actual fine will be.

Explaining your situation to the judge might persuade him or her to cut the fine or allow community service in lieu of a monetary fine. Some traffic court judges are pretty liberal about lowering fines and will do it for almost everyone who comes to court.

Pay Your Ticket in Installments

Clerks and judges are generally very lenient when drivers need additional time to pay their fees. If you admit to the violation but need more time to pay, monthly payment plans are typically available. Payment plans are generally flexible. So if you can't make a payment on time, let the clerk know; chances are you'll be able to modify your payment plan.

Traffic School

Many courts offer the reduction or dismissal of minor traffic offenses for drivers who complete traffic school. However, in some states, traffic school participants avoid demerit points but still have to pay their fines. Information on traffic school is generally available on the traffic court website. Otherwise, you can call the court clerk or go to the court in person.

Declaring Bankruptcy

Although it's probably unusual for someone to declare bankruptcy specifically because of unpaid traffic ticket fines. Declaring bankruptcy might resolve some of the issues associated with unpaid fines. However, bankruptcy law is complicated and should only be navigated under the direction of a skilled attorney.

Beat Your Ticket in Court

Beating your ticket in traffic court is sometimes easier said than done. However, if you're able to accomplish this feat, you won't have to worry about the fines and increased insurance rates that normally come with traffic tickets.