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who taught you to drive?

What happens out of state . . .

A Massachusetts State Trooper talks to a driver he pulled over on Route 24 last August.

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

A Massachusetts State Trooper talks to a driver he pulled over on Route 24 last August.

On Labor Day weekend, I got a hefty speeding ticket in Maine — yes, I was a bit naughty this year. That means a black mark on my driving record for the next six years, according to our state system, and a higher insurance premium.

Or does it?

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If you’re like me, you’re probably not sure whether other states report driving violations to Massachusetts, or whether Massachusetts returns the favor. Before computers, such exchanges would have been difficult, but what’s to stop them from happening now?

Will my ticket be reported to the National Driver Register, a massive federal database accessible to all states, so the next time the Registry of Motor Vehicles looks me up, my Maine violation will be waiting there?

I’m appealing my ticket (I actually have a case), but going into my hearing it would be nice to know what’s at stake should I lose. Will my Massachusetts driving record be marred, or can I just pay the fine and watch my citation disappear?

Do out-of-state tickets follow you home? Let’s find out.

Some good news

Having interviewed officials from the Massachusetts Registry, their counterparts in the other five New England states, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which runs the federal database, I have an answer — and it’s a positive one.

In general, speeding tickets and other minor violations accrued out-of-state do not make their way onto your Massachusetts driving record, and therefore do not increase your insurance rate. But caveats do apply.

For starters, you must address each out-of-state violation by paying or appealing it in a timely manner. If you fall into noncompliance, you’re asking for trouble.

Violations accrued in New Hampshire are another major exception. Because of a special agreement between Massachusetts and New Hampshire state transportation departments, any offense you commit in the Granite State will appear on your Massachusetts driving record as if it had happened here. So any New Hampshire violation, including a speeding ticket, could affect your insurance rate.

Major offenses are also a different animal — everyone hears about those. States are required to report criminal convictions for offenses such as driving to endanger, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or leaving the scene of an accident where there is personal injury to the National Driver Register. License suspensions and revocations must also be reported to the NDR for use by police nationwide during motor vehicle stops.

Lastly, if you are a commercial driver, every offense you commit, even minor ones such as speeding tickets, gets exchanged between states pretty much on a daily basis.

But as states don’t normally report minor offenses committed by noncommercial drivers to one another or to the national register, the odds of an out-of-state speeding ticket (except in New Hampshire) appearing on your Massachusetts driving record is extremely low, and in most cases, zero.

Ignoring a ticket

Blow off a ticket from another state, even for a minor traffic offense, and everything changes.

Massachusetts doesn’t send or receive reports to other states about minor offenses, but it does exchange information with more than 40 other states about drivers who fail to pay tickets for minor traffic violations, including speeding, through an interstate agreement known as the Nonresident Violator Compact.  

When the RMV finds out you’ve failed to address an out-of-state ticket, it can suspend your Massachusetts driver’s license until you fix the problem. If you’re a new resident with an unpaid ticket, the RMV can refuse to issue you a Massachusetts driver’s license.

If your outstanding ticket doesn’t get reported to Massachusetts, there’s a backup system in place, as all states are required to send information about license suspensions and revocations to the National Driver Register.

This point was a bit confusing for me, as I couldn’t understand how another state could suspend your Massachusetts driver’s license. Sara Lavoie, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts RMV, explained it like this: If you fail to pay a speeding ticket in another state — say, California — it will suspend your license to operate there, and report that suspension to the federal database.

When Massachusetts learns of that out-of-state suspension, it in turn can suspend your Massachusetts driver’s license.

“If you leave even one [ticket] unpaid, you can get suspended,” Lavoie e-mailed me. “We prioritize the most serious [out-of-state] convictions, but a driver should expect unpaid speeding violations, for example, to follow him or her from state to state.”

Insurance hike?

The RMV checks the National Driver Register whenever you renew your driver’s license (or more frequently if it has cause to) to see if you’ve accrued any major out-of-state offenses. If so, those offenses are added to your Massachusetts driving record.

Insurance companies typically focus on your driving record — and only that — when setting your premium, said Donna McKenna, vice president of communications for the Massachusetts Association of Insurance Agents. A state agency called the Merit Rating Board actually assesses your driving record to determine how safe a driver you’ve been, and that assessment is what insurance companies look at.

However, there are no rules against an insurance company seeking further information about your driving exploits, and some companies, McKenna said, will contact other states about you. If your insurer learns of an out-of-state violation that’s not on your driving record, it can report the violation to the Merit Rating Board and potentially use it to increase your premium, Lavoie said.

The odds of any insurer polling 49 other states to look for a speeding ticket with your name on it? “Slim to none,” McKenna said. But it’s not impossible.

Other states

Lastly, no two states treat out-of-state violations the same way. Rhode Island officials told me they add every traffic violation they are informed about — even minor violations like out-of-state speeding tickets — to a Rhode Island driver’s record.

Maine’s policy? It adds only major out-of-state violations to a resident’s driving record, even when it hears about speeding tickets issued elsewhere.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.  

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