You might be surprised what happens if you get stopped for speeding in Virginia. Even if you don't live here, you may find yourself passing through for business or vacation. Educate yourself in advance.

(The way Virginia deals with speeders has been a hot topic this year, thanks to the jail sentences of our own Patrick George and now Washington Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth. In light of this, we asked Virginia traffic defense attorney Andrew Flusche to shed some light on the state's speeding laws. -Ed.)

It may not be a speeding ticket

Many people think nothing of being stopped for speeding. You'll get a ticket which you can just pay when you get back home. Not in Virginia.

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Many people who get stopped on the interstates in Virginia get home to find out that they were actually charged with a crime. It's called reckless driving, and it prohibits going over 80 mph or any speed 20+ over the speed limit. This is a misdemeanor offense in Virginia, which is the same level of offense as DUI.

What's even crazier is that the officer may not tell you exactly what type of ticket you're getting. Many officers simply write "RD" on the ticket, which drivers don't usually recognize as reckless driving right away. I think that helps reduce arguments on the side of the road.

Reckless driving tickets present unique problems for drivers, since they are technically jailable offenses for which the judge could suspend your license. Realistically, most people don't receive punishments that severe. However, people do regularly go to jail and lose their license for this offense.

How to protect yourself

Now that you know the scary truth of Virginia's reckless driving law, what can you do about it in advance?

Simple. Don't go over 80 in Virginia. No matter what.

And keep your speed no more than 19 mph over the speed limit. But if the speed limit is 65 mph, you still have to keep it under 80 mph too.

That alone will help keep you out of the reckless driving boat. Although there are other types of reckless driving that you could still get nabbed for, such as simply running off the road, which usually entails a reckless driving ticket for "failure to maintain control" of the vehicle.

Also, when you drive through Virginia for a holiday weekend, pay extra careful attention to your driving and your speed. Holiday weekends are major enforcement times for Virginia's traffic laws. For example, during the 2014 Thanksgiving weekend, Virginia State Police cited 2,312 people for reckless driving and 9,789 people for speeding. That's not even including all the tickets issued by local sheriff's offices and police departments. The summer holiday weekends can have even higher numbers, with 2,673 reckless driving tickets issued by the State Police from July 4 to July 6, 2014.

How to respond to a ticket

If you're an unlucky recipient of one of these criminal charges, what should you do?

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First of all, read the ticket and look up the "Law Section" that you're charged with. If it's regular speeding, you can decide about paying it versus hiring a lawyer to try to have it dismissed.

But if you're charged with reckless driving, you need to think carefully about how to respond.

Most importantly, beware of the counties that let you just pay the ticket. Be sure you're making an informed decision before you accept a conviction for reckless driving. You'd be surprised how many people try to get an old reckless driving conviction expunged in Virginia, only to be told that it's impossible. In Virginia, if you are found guilty of a crime, it's on the record for good.

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The best way to learn the truth about what you're really facing is by calling a local traffic lawyer who regularly handles cases where your ticket is pending. You don't have to hire them. But they should be willing to give you an overview of the realistic punishments that the judge may impose.

Knowing what you're facing gives you the power to make a solid decision about the costs and benefits of different approaches. If the judge never gives jail for the speed you're accused of, that could certainly make the ticket a little less stressful at least.

It's critical to talk with a local lawyer, since these cases vary widely across Virginia. For example, in some courts, 100 mph is the magic line where jail becomes a threat. But in other courts, 90 mph could land you in jail for a couple days. That makes a big difference if you're charged with 92 in a 70 mph zone.

Why Virginia is different

People often ask why Virginia treats speeding so harshly. There are many opinions on this, but it seems like a mix of reasons.

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One is political. Legislators want to look like they're keeping people safe, and having stern traffic laws theoretically makes the roads safer. Almost every year there are proposals in the Virginia General Assembly to loosen the reckless driving laws, and they seem to routinely fail.

Financial reasons exist too. Reckless driving fines can go up to $2,500. While that number is not imposed often, it's not unusual to see a fine of $350 or more for these offenses; whereas, the maximum fine for a regular Virginia speeding ticket is $250. Plus, the court costs are higher for a misdemeanor offense than for a traffic ticket. Reckless driving tickets raise a hefty chunk of revenue for the state.

Now that you're informed, you hopefully won't end up meeting a member of the Virginia State Police during your travels.

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Andrew Flusche limits his law practice to traffic and misdemeanor defense in Virginia.

Photo credit Shutterstock