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Bill gives drivers more options to scrub traffic tickets

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Arizona motorists accused of speeding and other offenses could soon have a new way to escape their tickets — and, more to the point, the higher insurance rates that follow.

A proposal by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, would allow drivers who think they are innocent — or think they can convince a judge of that — to attend defensive driving classes if they are unable to make their case in court.

Right now that opportunity is available only to those who choose not to contest a citation. The moment someone fights it in court, the defensive driving option evaporates.

All this is important because those who successfully complete the four-hour classes, whether in person or online, have the citation wiped from their records. That means no points on their license.

More to the point, a ticket erased with a defensive driving class is not reported to insurance companies. And that means insurers cannot use the citation as an excuse to jack up a premium.

Kavanagh, who crafted HB 2005, said it’s only fair that all motorists be given the same chance to wipe out their tickets.

“If a person is innocent and wants to avail themselves of their rights to plead not guilty, but unfortunately are erroneously found guilty, they should still have the right to take the course to improve themselves and not get points on their license,” he said.

But David Childers, who lobbies for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, said it’s not that simple.

He said the insurance companies he represents have no problem with all motorists who get traffic tickets going to defensive driving school to become more skilled behind the wheel. The issue, Childers said, is hiding their citations from insurance companies.

Put simply, he said, insurers have to bring in enough money to cover their losses. And right now that system is built on those drivers whose habits are more likely to cause claims paying more.

Conversely, good drivers pay less.

Block insurers from knowing about those bad drivers, he said, undermines all that.

“The people who don’t get tickets will pay for the people who do,” Childers said.

Kavanagh, however, sees the issue through a different lens.

He contends that many of the people who fight traffic tickets are really not guilty of anything. But the current system, Kavanagh said, discourages them from fighting for fear they will lose — and lose the opportunity to have the citation erased.

“So you reward people who break the law and you penalize people who didn’t and avail themselves of their constitutional right to plead not guilty,” he said.

That, of course, presumes that everyone who goes to court really is innocent and not simply hoping to escape the ticket on a technicality or because the police officer does not show up. Kavanagh, however, said it’s irrelevant to him even if the person actually did commit the traffic offense.

“Even if the person who pleads not guilty is guilty, they should have the same rights as the person who is guilty and pleads guilty,” he said.

Anyway, Kavanagh said, the current law makes no sense.

“Are we sending people to driving school because we want them to learn something to become safer drivers?” he asked. “Or are we sending people to driving school to bribe them not to avail themselves of their constitutional rights to adjudication?”

Childers said his clients likely have no problem incentivizing people to attend defensive driving classes — and becoming safer drivers — as long as the information about their tickets was forwarded to the insurance companies to make adjustments in their rates and ensure that only the motorists with bad habits pay the additional charges.

“There could be an issue there,” Kavanagh said of rates going up on good drivers to pay for the bad ones who are not identified. But here, too, he questions the fairness of some of the speeding citations that motorists get.

“It’s balanced the other way because of how easy it is to get an undeserved photo radar ticket,” he said.

This is far from the first time that Arizona lawmakers have tinkered with the idea of making it easier for motorists to escape tickets — and higher premiums — for their driving habits.

At one time defensive driving classes ran seven hours, all of them requiring people to sit in a classroom for two evenings or one weekend day.

That has since been shortened to just four hours. And now motorists actually can take the class online from home or office.

And three years ago legislators agreed to let motorists escape a citation once every 12 months by taking the classes. Before that a driver could not wipe out a second ticket issued within 24 months.

No date has been set for a hearing on the legislation.

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