All states have an interest in keeping bad drivers off the road. To that end, each state has an agency, usually called the Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV, that tracks the traffic tickets issued to each driver licensed in their state. All traffic tickets and related criminal charges are reported to the DMV and to the driver's insurance company. Different types of traffic violations will stay on the person's driving record for different periods of time, but not every communication between a police officer and a driver is reported to the DMV.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
A written warning from a police officer to a driver is in lieu of a traffic ticket. It is not reported to the DMV and does not appear on the driving history of the individual.
Traffic Laws and Traffic Violations
The rules of the road are not uniform across the United States. Each state government enacts its own traffic laws, valid within its borders. That means that a road trip across the country will involve a host of different sets of driving rules. Violation of any of them can cost the driver a citation, or traffic ticket.
However, it's not as hard as it sounds, since many rules are similar or identical. Driving over the posted speed limit can be a traffic violation in any state, as can tailgating, driving while drunk, driving without a valid license or swerving from lane to lane recklessly. But some rules are trickier. For example, in California, it is totally legal for a driver to turn right on a red light after a stop, while this can result in a citation in other states. Similarly, lane-splitting is a legal maneuver for motorcycles in California but is likely to get the driver a ticket in most other states.
What Is a Citation?
A police officer can issue a driver a ticket if the driver is caught violating a state's driving laws. Tickets can be for small things, like a brake light bulb being out, or for larger things, like driving drunk or driving without a valid driver's license. A driver who causes a serious accident will get a traffic ticket too, even if they are also arrested for their actions.
A citation itself isn't an arrest. It is a ticket that requires the driver to either appear in court on the charges described on the ticket or to pay a fine. The fine relieves the driver of the duty to appear in court, but it also constitutes a guilty plea to the charge. For example, a driver who is stopped for running a red light is issued a citation charging them with running a red light. If they pay the fine, they are admitting that they ran the red light, or, at the very least, agreeing not to dispute the charge.
Consequences of Citations
What are the consequences of getting a traffic ticket? First, there is the fine. Different states impose different fines, and some can be quite high, sometimes in the hundreds of dollars.
Second, most states have a points system to keep track of the number and severity of offenses committed by a driver. The state decides on how many points each type of violation will have, with more serious violations carrying more points. A driver who accumulates sufficient points in a set period of time will have their license suspended. Those states that do not have a points system still list traffic tickets on the person's driving record. The person can lose their license if too many tickets appear on their driving record.
Finally, the DMV records are accessible by the driver's insurer. An insurance provider is likely to raise the driver's auto insurance rates as their driving record gets worse. Insurance companies assume that more violations on a driving record mean that the driver is not driving carefully, making it more likely the driver will get into an accident in the future, causing claims against the insurance policy.
Warning Tickets Are Not Traffic Citations
A police officer who stops a driver for violating traffic rules has some discretion about giving the driver a citation. Generally, for serious infractions like reckless driving or drunk driving, the officer will issue a ticket. But when the charge is minor, the officer can let the person off with a warning instead of a ticket and it generally does not go on the person's driving record.
Warnings about driving behavior can be written or they can be oral. A verbal warning means the police officer simply pointed out an issue to the driver. For example, if a California driver makes a right on red in another state where it isn't legal, the officer might stop the driver and remind them of the state driving laws.
A written warning is one step closer to a citation, but it isn't one. However, it might trigger certain action. For example, if a driver gets a written warning that their tail light isn't functioning, they should get the matter fixed in the time specified. Generally no follow up with the police department or DMV is required.
Consequences of a Warning
Consider a warning, whether written or oral, to be a lucky break. A traffic warning does not go on a driver's record, nor is it reported to the DMV or to a car insurance company. It nudges the driver toward better practices in the future. In some jurisdictions, a warning may be noted on records visible to the next officer so that if the person is stopped again for the same minor offense or moving violation, a citation will result.
Given the limited consequences of warnings, it is obviously a much better outcome for the driver than a ticket. While there is no guarantee that courtesy will get a driver a warning instead of a citation, a driver's attitude may influence that decision.
Unfortunately, other matters like the driver's race, the driver's appearance and the driver's job can also play a role in who gets a warning and who gets a citation. This can sometimes lead to well-known people or politically powerful people getting warnings, where others are slapped with citations. This has lead to criticism of the system.
- North Dakota Highway Patrol: Frequently Asked Questions - Traffic Citations / Warnings
- DMV.org: How Driving Record Points Affect Car Insurance Rates
- DMV.org: DMV Point System in New Hampshire
- Texas ELaws: Written Warning
- Police1: Ticket vs. Warning
- Traffic Citation Attorney: What to Do After Receiving a Written Traffic Violation Warning
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.