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What Is a Traffic Violation?

A traffic violation occurs when a driver violates one of the laws that regulate motor vehicle operation on streets or highways. A traffic ticket, or traffic citation, is a minor offense, but it can have serious consequences for the driver. Traffic violations appear on your driving record, affect insurance premiums, and result in costly fines and legal fees.

The majority of traffic tickets are infractions. These are civil violations issued by local law enforcement, with minimal fines. More serious offenses lead to losing your driver's license, traffic school, and jail time. Before things get that far, you should seek legal advice from a traffic ticket attorney.

For definitions related to traffic violations, visit the Traffic Law and DUI Law Glossary in the FindLaw Legal Dictionary.

Traffic Tickets and Strict Liability

Most minor traffic tickets are strict liability offenses, sometimes called "per se" or "malum prohibitum" offenses. This means that the driver's intent is irrelevant to the commission of the crime. Once the act occurs, the driver has committed the crime. For instance, if a school zone has a posted limit of 25 mph, and you drive through it at 50 mph, your intent to speed does not matter.

Without injuries or property damage, these strict liability crimes remain civil infractions. Other strict liability traffic violations include:

  • Failure to yield
  • Failure to signal a turn
  • Driving a car at night without headlights
  • Parking in a fire lane
  • Driving with expired inspection or registration stickers

Your intent, the reason you committed the infraction, may matter in traffic court. This is when you need a traffic ticket lawyer. For instance, if you were speeding because you were racing to the hospital, the judge might reduce or cancel your ticket. These are mitigating circumstances. You should not make this argument with the police officer who writes you the ticket, however. Save it for the judge.

Moving Violations and Nonmoving Violations

A moving violation occurs whenever a driver violates a traffic law with a vehicle in motion. Some examples of moving violations are speeding, running a stop sign or red light, or changing lanes without signaling. Moving violations also involve how the car is driven. Driving without auto insurance is a moving violation, even if nothing else is wrong with the car.

A nonmoving violation, by contrast, is usually related to parking or faulty equipment. Examples include parking in front of a fire hydrant or on a crosswalk, expired tags, or talking on your cell phone. Most equipment violations are nonmoving violations, even if the car was in motion when you received your ticket.

Speeding Tickets

In the 1970s, federal law mandated a speed limit of 55 mph on the interstates to save gas. Today, states set speed limits on interstates passing through their states, state highways, and municipal roads. Cities may set limits on their roads and thoroughfares.

States regulate speed limits in two ways. They may have laws that set a maximum or minimum speed limit in certain areas, such as 65 mph on the freeway or 25 mph in school zones. They may also have "reasonable driver" laws that allow drivers to drive faster or slower than posted limits, depending on road conditions. A driver should drive slower than the posted 65 mph limit in a downpour.

Law enforcement officers use different speed limit rules when writing traffic tickets.

  • Absolute Speed Limits: Set a statutory limit, and any driver violating that speed is subject to a ticket. A posted limit of 65 mph means that 66 mph gets a ticket.
  • Presumed Limit: Violations base tickets on road conditions and driver competence. A posted limit of 65 mph could be okay in dry, clear conditions, but a ticket in a thunderstorm.
  • Basic Speed Laws: Allow the officer to determine if the driver is going too fast for the road conditions, regardless of the posted speed limits. The sign says 65 mph, and it's raining. A 16-year-old driver doing 60 mph might be driving too fast, but a 45-year-old driver traveling 70 mph might be OK.

Traffic laws vary from state to state. Driving laws and expectations can even differ based on the city where someone is driving. To understand more about a specific state's traffic laws, consult FindLaw's State Traffic Laws page.

Consequences of Speeding Tickets

To many people, a speeding ticket is an annoyance. Statistics agree that young male drivers are overrepresented in speeding tickets and traffic court. The penalties for speeding start small, but they rapidly increase in severity and effect. In some states, speeding is a misdemeanor, making it a criminal offense that will follow the driver as they look for jobs and housing. Combine speeding with drinking, and it may become a felony.

Other consequences of speeding after your first ticket can include:

  • Driver's license suspension or revocation
  • Higher insurance rates or inability to obtain insurance
  • Court costs and restitution if there was any property damage

Work With a Lawyer To Understand Details

You should have legal representation if you face possible jail time for your traffic violation. Violations like DUIs, reckless driving, or driving on a suspended license are criminal cases, and you need a lawyer. A criminal defense attorney can negotiate ticket fines and plea bargaining, which is essential if serious penalties are involved. You may feel comfortable defending yourself for a minor traffic violation, but an experienced traffic violations attorney would improve your odds of success.

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