Unsafe Driving and Plea Bargains
Many NJ drivers know about the "Unsafe Driving" statute, 39: 97.2. Indeed, many NJ drivers, after they are given a traffic ticket for speeding or careless driving, choose to downgrade or amend their tickets to "unsafe driving" by way of plea bargaining, so that they can get their much prized "zero point ticket."
But there is more to the law than this.
Far too often I see people go to court, even when represented by attorneys, and ask for the "Unsafe Driving" zero point ticket when it is unnecessary. I once had the misfortune of seeing a 22 year old driver use his last 97.2 Unsafe Driving plea on a two point ticket because of parental pressure. He had no other points on his license, but his parents were afraid of "surcharges" and "a hike in their premiums."
Don't believe the hype. Study the facts before you accept a plea for "Unsafe Driving." Why do I say this?
First, you need to look at the immediate expense. Each time you use this plea, it gets more expensive. Generally speaking, the first time you use it you will spend roughly $439 (when you add up the fines, surcharges and court costs). The second time, it will jump up to about $539 and the third time it could go as high as $739.
Second, you can only use this "get out of jail free card" three times in your entire life. Furthermore, you are only allowed to use this "unsafe driving" amendment twice in a five year period. If you accidentally try to use it for a third time in a 5 year period, you'll get 4 points on your driving record. (If this happens, you should contact an attorney to inquire about filing a motion to re-open your case).
Third, once you use it for the third time, you can never use it again.
I believe that these downgrades are so precious that they should only be used sparingly and intelligently. Why waste them when you don't have to? For example, let's say you get hit with numerous tickets with really high point penalties and you have very little in the way of a defense. Or, let's say you're charged with reckless driving (a 5 point ticket) and the prosecutor is willing (he/she may not always be) to downgrade to unsafe driving. These are the times when you may want to use this downgrade, because the outcome any trial is uncertain, and you may not be able to afford the hike in insurance fees that you will most probably face if you get hit with a reckless driving conviction. Lastly, if you already have numerous points on your license and will face or risk suspension if you incur anymore, then pleading to a zero-point unsafe driving downgrade makes lots of sense.
That said, in the vast majority of cases you may not want to impulsively plead guilty to the zero-point "unsafe driving" charge, because you may have other options at your disposal.
Alternative Courses of Action than “Unsafe Driving” Plea
First, the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission automatically deducts 3 points off of your license and driving record each year provided you have no subsequent violations or suspensions. If you have no prior points on your license, are not in the habit of committing traffic violations, generally drive well and your current driving offense is "out of the ordinary,” you may not necessarily want to plea guilty to "unsafe driving."
Second, the State of NJ permits you to take a "defensive driving course" that automatically deducts 2 points off your driving record. You can only take this class once every five years. This is a good, decent class and it will help your driving record a great deal, often without the high cost of an attorney or Unsafe Driving plea.
Third, you have the ability to enroll in the New Jersey Driver Improvement Program. This course is available, in different forms, to both experienced and probationary drivers once they face the imminent risk of a driver’s license suspension. Younger drivers in the "probationary driver program" can face a license suspension if they are convicted of 2 motor vehicle violations or suffer 4 points on their license. Experienced drivers who have a normal license can face suspension if they get 12 to 14 points on their license. Once drivers enroll in this course, they can deduct 3 points from their license. They can enroll in this course once every 2 years. However, once you enroll in this course, you will be on a form of probation, such that any subsequent driving infraction will result in a suspension of your driving privilege. The thing to remember, though, is that this program is only available to those who face imminent threat of suspension. It should not be confused with the "defensive driver course," for which one never undergoes probation or suffers a subsequent risk of license suspension.
Fourth, your insurance company may not be as strict as you may think. I once worked for a nationally renowned insurance company and continue to do much PIP (Personal Injury Protection) work against others. I am familiar with many of the policies and procedures that insurance companies employ during the different stages of the auto accident litigation process. Contrary to popular opinion, many insurance companies will work with policyholders and give them solid, good advice. The fact of the matter is that many insurance companies routinely forgive drivers and policyholders for rare, minor traffic infractions according to the specific terms of their policies. It all depends on your specific insurance carrier and their policy regarding the infraction with which you were charged. Not all companies are the same.
Basically, these insurance companies have underwriting departments that have created their own internal "point system" for traffic infractions. These "corporate point systems" exist independently of the one maintained by the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission. You can't lose your license if you accumulate too many points with your insurance company, but you'll probably be losing lots of money. An additional fact to keep in mind is that while the State of New Jersey is often bound to impose a point based penalty for certain traffic convictions, your insurance company is not. For example, New Jersey will impose a 2 point penalty upon you if you are convicted of speeding 10 mph over the speed limit. On the other hand, your insurance company may only give you 1 point or even zero points for the same infraction, without you experiencing any increase in your premium or monthly payments. Another company, though, may give somebody 2 or more points for the same infraction, especially if they are a young male driver who not only just received their driver’s license, but has received 3 speeding tickets within the past month. At the end of the day, Judges, Prosecutors, Defense attorneys and officials at the Motor Vehicle Commission have no power over how much you pay for insurance. Only your insurance company has that power. If somebody tells you otherwise, they're not being up front with you.
In addition, some insurance companies even forgive traffic accidents and promise to not increase your rates, even if you're at fault. One nationally recognized auto insurance company goes so far as to forgive one motor vehicle accident every three years. If your primary concern is keeping your automobile insurance premium and rates down, the safest bet is to talk with a qualified lawyer as well as your insurance company.
Why Hire an Experienced Attorney?
Now, if this is the case, then why should you hire an attorney? That's an easy question to answer. Sometimes, people get ticketed for violations for which they are not guilty. Perhaps they weren't speeding as fast as the officer, radar or laser device stated. Perhaps a car accident or moving violation didn't occur the way the officer reported. Perhaps you can't take a defensive driving course or enroll in the driver improvement program. Perhaps you have a commercial driver’s license and can't risk points at all. If this is the case, an attorney can help clarify things on your behalf in court.
Knowledge is power and the best way to protect you and your family's financial future is to consult a qualified attorney who can not only give you quality traffic representation before a NJ Municipal Court, but can also help you navigate the confusing world of Motor Vehicle statutes, suspension rules and automobile insurance policies. These arenas work hand-in-hand when it comes to traffic violations and you need to be informed and prepared for all complications as they arise.
It’s your life and future. You're absolutely worth it.
My South Jersey Law Office regularly serves the NJ communities of Camden, Pennsauken, Delran, Willingboro, Bellmawr, Runnemede, Deptford, Woodbury, Glassboro, Westville, Gloucester Township (Blackwood, Glendora, Erial, Sicklerville, Blenheim, Lambs Terrace, Chews Landing, and Hilltop) and Washington Township, (Turnersville, Sewell, Hurffville, Grenloch, CrossKeys, Bunker Hill and Chapel Heights).
If you live in these areas, or any other area of South Jersey and have been charged with speeding or any other sort of driving infraction, then contact my office immediately for a free consultation. I treat every client with extra-special care and go over the evidence and facts of their case, in-depth, so that no stone is unturned in their legal case.
Call us for quality, compassionate, and individualized representation: 856-873-3730