Insurance companies compete with special optionsHe got me! There I was, caught like the proverbial deer in the headlights of a police cruiser on a darkened road in the New Jersey pinelands. The red and blue bubble-gum machine lights atop the cop car alerted every motorist within miles that I was getting a ticket.

It was humiliating, and a costly courtroom experience, even when you pled guilty. But my worst fear was that my car insurance rates would go up $400 a year with those dreaded points on my license.

Well, that didn't happen.

"We don't raise your rates because you get a ticket," said my insurance agent. Whew! And when I had an accident that wasn't my fault but still cost my insurer $1,500, my yearly rate still didn't go up.

Apparently I'm not alone. USA Today recently cited a study by Princeton Survey Research Associates International that said just 31 percent of drivers who received a moving violation within the last five years were hit with higher rates.

Total recall

Some insurance experts felt that the survey results were bogus.

The Chief Economist of the Insurance Information Institute (III), Steve Weisbart, said that the survey asked drivers for a "five-year recall" of when they got tickets and how much their premiums rose. Most people couldn't remember that far back which tickets they received and if their premiums, which usually went up anyway, were the result of a moving violation. Other factors, such as aging or a declining credit rating, could also account for a higher premium, Weisbart told USA Today.

This is particularly true since the date a speeding ticket is written isn't always the day that it's reported to the state, which in turn allows the auto insurance company to find out about it. Often there's several months lag time, especially if the defendant goes to court to challenge the ticket or plead guilty.

But there seems to be some truth in this tale of insurance mercy. Even Weisbart had to admit that some insurers now "forgive" one ticket every three years. And these insurers also offer another form of forgiveness -- for first accidents.

Most of us have seen the computer-generated time lapse ad in which Liberty Mutual rebuilds a damaged car to highlight its "forgiveness" policy. The Wall Street Journal points out that Allstate, GEICO and Nationwide offer similar options, and in some instances, even to policyholders with teenage drivers.

Herd it loud and clear

Of course, insurers aren't in business to give money away or pay for reckless drivers. But they are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from the thundering herd of competitors on something other than price.

See various coverage options offered by 20 large auto insurers in Insure.com's "Best Insurance Companies" tool.

They see another advantage in that accident and ticket forgiveness keeps current customers in the fold, which costs insurers a lot less than the $6 billion in advertising they spend each year trying to poach each other's customers. And increasing the premium an extra $400 could undoubtedly send many of their policyholders in search of another carrier.

'You better shop around'

If you are in the market for an auto insurance company, the III's Jeanne Salvatore says "forgiveness" is only one of the things you should look at. She tells consumers to shop around for the best deal overall, comparing the total cost and all the options which the insurer offers.

The best deal of all is not to get caught speeding. But this isn't always possible since -- let's admit it -- most of us tend to exceed the posted speed limit. And these days there are plenty of cash-strapped municipalities that are using their police force to catch speeders and take in additional revenue.

The same township in which I got my speeding ticket gave another family member a moving violation for an illegal "right on red." Never mind that the "No Right on Red" sign was obscured by a bunch of other signs surrounding it. And the officer just happened to be waiting around the corner.