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How does a ticket for texting affect car insurance rates?

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When you text while driving, your eyes are off the road an average of almost five seconds, a federal transportation study found. If you’re traveling at 55 mph, that’s basically like driving blindfolded for the length of a football field.

The results can be tragic. More than 3,100 people were killed and another 424,000 were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distracted driving includes cellphone use, eating, talking to passengers and other activities that divert a driver’s attention.

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It’s against the law to text and drive in almost all states. But whether a violation will affect your car insurance rates depends on the specifics of the driving laws in your state and your insurance company’s pricing formula. Each insurer has its own way of calculating rates after tickets, which will impact how much a violation will cost you over the long haul.

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[Compare car insurance quotes through NerdWallet’s Car Insurance Comparison Tool.]

States are cracking down

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia ban text messaging for all drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Most are primary-enforcement laws, which means officers can issue citations any time they observe drivers texting and driving. Others have secondary enforcement, meaning officers can issue citations only if they’ve stopped drivers for some other offense.

Of the four states that don’t ban text messaging for all drivers:

  • Arizona and Montana don’t have text messaging bans, although Arizona bans all cell phone use by school bus drivers.
  • Missouri bans text messaging for drivers under age 21.
  • Texas bans text messaging for school bus drivers and drivers under age 18.

Some cities have enacted their own cell phone rules. New ordinances in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, for instance, went into effect this year banning handheld cell phone use while driving.

Texting-while-driving penalties vary

The penalty for texting while driving depends on where you’re caught. Here are some examples of penalties:

  • In California, the base fine is $20 for the first offense and $50 for subsequent convictions. The total fine can be triple those amounts, once other assessments are added. The violation appears on your driving record, but no points are added.
  • In New York, the penalty for a first offense ranges from $50 to $200, plus a fee of up to $93. If you get caught again within 18 months, the fine goes up to $250 for the second offense and up to $450 for the third and subsequent offenses. In addition, five driver violation points are assigned if you’re convicted of texting while driving. If you receive 11 points within 18 months for any combination of moving violations, your driver’s license could be suspended.
  • Alaska’s law has the toughest maximum penalties. Texting while driving is a misdemeanor with a penalty of up to $10,000 and one year in prison. Injuring someone as a result of texting and driving is a felony with a penalty of up to $50,000 and five years in prison. If the accident victim is seriously injured, the penalty goes up to $100,000 and 10 years in prison. If the victim is killed, it’s up to a $250,000 fine and 20 years in prison.

Car insurance rates don’t always go up

Whether a texting ticket will affect your car insurance bill depends a lot on the law in your state.

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These states don’t allow insurance companies to consider texting tickets when setting premiums:

  • Idaho
  • Massachusetts
  • North Carolina
  • Washington

Besides these four states, some states with driver’s license point systems don’t assign penalty points for texting tickets. Generally the more serious the violation, the more points are assigned.

If you accumulate too many, your license may be suspended. Violations that don’t carry any points are less likely to affect how much you pay for car insurance. States that don’t assign points for texting-while-driving tickets are:

  • California
  • Delaware
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana (which doesn’t use a point system at all)
  • Pennsylvania
  • Tennessee

If you live in a state where a texting ticket is considered a moving violation and adds points to your driving record, then you might see an increase at renewal time on your car insurance.

“If you’ve had other moving violations on top of the texting violation, you will definitely see your rates increase,” says Loretta Worters, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute.

If you get a texting ticket with penalty points, go to traffic school if you can. In some instances the violation won’t go on your driving record if you complete a state-approved driver safety course.

Depending on the state, points usually stay on your driving record for one to three years. Once the points drop off your record, you should see your car insurance rate go down, too.

If you get a texting ticket with penalty points, go to traffic school if you can. In some instances the violation won’t go on your driving record if you complete a state-approved driver safety course.

Meanwhile, no matter what your driving record looks like, you’ll find the best deal by comparing car insurance quotes. NerdWallet’s car insurance comparison tool can help you get started.

Barbara Marquand is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email:bmarquand@nerdwallet.com.