I got a speeding ticket for going 20 km/h above the limit but it doesn't say how many demerit points I lose. Does that mean I won't lose any? I really don't understand how demerits work and I'm worried that my insurance will go up. – Mike, Toronto

At a loss trying to figure out how demerits work? You've got plenty of company.

"Every single ticket issued, the first word out of people's mouths is, 'How many points do I lose?' " said Constable Clint Stibbe of Toronto Police Traffic Services. "But you don't lose points, you gain them."

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Demerits are strikes against your driving record. In Ontario, you start out with zero and get demerits added by the province when you get convicted of many Ontario Highway Traffic Act offences.

Penalties range from two demerits (for offences such as making an illegal turn) to seven demerits (for not stopping when police try to pull you over or for failing to remain at an accident).

Looking at speeding specifically: going 30-49 km/h over the limit is four demerits; 16-29 km/h over is three and there are no demerits if you're 15 km/h or less over the limit.

And, with a few exceptions, you'll still get demerits from tickets you got in other provinces.

Demerits not on the ticket

When you're pulled over, the officer doesn't decide how many demerit points you'll get, he just gives you a ticket for breaking a particular section. The ticket itself doesn't show the demerits.

"The only time you would see any reference to demerits would be if we issue a warning for the offence," Stibbe said. "If you get a warning, it will indicate what the fine and the demerits would have been. It's like a safety brochure."

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If you do get a ticket and you pay it, or you fight it and the court finds you guilty, you'll automatically get the demerit points associated with it.

There are a couple of exceptions. You won't get demerit points if you got the ticket on a bicycle. And while running a red light normally comes with three demerits, there are no demerits if it's a ticket from a red light camera. That's because they get sent to the owner of the vehicle, who may not have been the one driving.

Gain demerits, lose your licence?

The specifics vary by province, but generally, if you rack up enough demerit points, your driver's licence will get suspended.

If you have a full licence in Ontario, the ministry can decide to suspend your licence once you have nine demerits. But if you get to 15 or more, your licence is automatically suspended for 30 days.

For new drivers with G1 or G2 restricted licences, six demerits could be enough to get a licence suspension; nine demerits is an automatic 60-day suspension.

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The demerits stay on your licence for two years. But the conviction stays on your driving record for three years, Stibbe said. Suspensions stay on your record for six years.

Convictions matter for insurance

It's that conviction, rather than the demerits themselves, that your insurance company is looking at when deciding whether to raise your rates.

"The more tickets and infractions you have on your driving record the larger the risk you become to insure and your rate will reflect that," said John Bordignon, spokesman for State Farm Canada, in an e-mail.

Companies can use any convictions on your record, even if they didn't come with demerits. Generally, they break convictions into three categories: minor, major and serious.

Minor includes following too closely and speeding. Major includes improper passing of a school bus or failing to report an accident. Serious includes speeding 50 km/h over the posted limit and impaired driving.

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So, something like speeding could affect your rates – even if it's only for 10 km/h over the limit and didn't come with demerits.

"If you have two or three within a three-year window, even those could add up," said Pete Karageorgos, director of consumer and industry relations with the Insurance Bureau of Canada. "The company will think, 'Wait a minute, the trend here is that this is not a good driver.' "

Rates soar, even without demerits

We looked at online insurance calculators and compared rates for a 30-year-old, male, married driver with a 2015 Honda Civic and no previous accidents.

With no tickets in the past three years, the lowest available rate was $1,878 a year. With two minor tickets, it rose to $2,017, with three to $4,987 and with four or more to $5,325.

The government doesn't notify your insurance company when you get a ticket, but the company can still find out.

"Insurance companies on a semi-regular basis will check people's driving records – if you've been with the same company, they may not look for two or three years," Karageorgos said. "But if you're shopping around for a new policy, that new insurance company will actively look at your driving record."

And if you apply for a new policy without telling them about your ample collection of speeding tickets, your policy could be cancelled.

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada's a big place, so please let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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