Traffic laws exist to protect drivers, pedestrians, and other users or passengers using public roads. While nothing can prevent every accident on American roadways, traffic laws aim to reduce these numbers and promote public health and safety when driving.
Police officers enforce these laws primarily through traffic stops. As a motorist, law enforcement will likely stop you and possibly issue a traffic ticket at least once in your lifetime.
FindLaw's Traffic Laws section covers everything you need to know about traffic laws, including:
- What to do and not to do if stopped by law enforcement
- Vehicle searches and seizures
- Understanding your rights and options for fighting a traffic ticket
- Driver's license, liability insurance, and vehicle registration laws
- State directories of traffic laws and Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) offices
A Brief History of Traffic Laws
Motor vehicles were a novelty to most when first introduced at the turn of the 20th century, so they followed the rules established for horse-drawn wagons and carriages. It didn't take long for cars to become popular and dangerous, prompting the state of New York to require owners to register their vehicles in 1901. In 1910, New York introduced the first prohibition on driving while intoxicated.
Other states followed suit, and by 1920, all states required license plates for vehicles. Most states required driver's licenses by 1935, but only a few of them tested drivers before issuing them.
Safety equipment like seat belts emerged in the 1950s and 60s. Later, states began to require the use of seat belts in the 80s, and airbags soon followed. In recent years states have rolled out distracted driving laws, which restrict motorists from using cell phones and other wireless devices while driving.
Many of the traffic control devices we see today, like stop signs and pedestrian crosswalks, were suggested in William Eno's 1903 book, "Rules of the Road." He also advocated for several traffic regulations we use today, including:
- Slow traffic to remain on the right
- Cars to pass on the left
- The use of one-way streets
- The construction of safety islands between opposing lanes of traffic
- The use of the traffic circle or roundabout
Many of his ideas were gradually adopted as states developed their traffic laws.
Common Traffic Law Violations
While each state has its own traffic codes, there are only slight variations from one state to the next on the major rules of the road. For example, all states use the same types of traffic signals based on the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The maximum speed limit on freeways differs by state, with one section of freeway in Texas boasting an 85 mph speed limit. Some local municipalities also have ordinances that drivers must follow.
Below are some examples of common traffic law violations enforced in all states:
- Making an illegal U-turn
- Failure to wear seat belts or child restraints
- Broken taillight or headlight
- Failure to come to a complete stop at a red light, stop sign, or railroad crossing
- Failure to yield to emergency vehicles or school buses
- Failure to pull over for a police officer
- Failure to follow right-of-way laws or give priority to pedestrians or bicyclists
- Failure to reduce speed in construction areas and school zones
FindLaw provides information on all 50 states' traffic laws in the linked material at the end of this article. Even if you are not facing a traffic violation, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with your local and state laws.
Common Penalties for Traffic Violations
Minor traffic offenses like speeding or running a red light are usually classified as infractions, meaning they are administrative violations not punishable by jail time.
Infractions are typically categorized as a moving violation or a non-moving violation. Moving violations occur when a vehicle is in motion. Conversely, non-moving violations occur when a vehicle is not in motion, like a parking ticket, or for mechanical violations or vehicle modifications, such as a missing license plate or illegal window tinting.
Driving without valid vehicle registration and driving without insurance are also non-moving violations.
Penalties for infractions typically include a simple fine. Depending on the circumstances of the offense, you can also temporarily or permanently lose your driving privileges. Most moving violations are reported to insurance companies, so you will also likely see an increase in your auto insurance rates.
More serious traffic violations are classified differently. Some examples include:
- Misdemeanor: Driving under the influence (DUI/DWI), reckless driving, hit and run, and driving without insurance
- Felony: Multiple occurrences of driving under the influence, vehicular homicide, and hit and run resulting in bodily harm or death to another person
In most states, a traffic violation escalates to a misdemeanor or felony if it causes injury to a person or property damage or creates a real threat of injury to a person or property damage. Repeat occurrences of violations, like getting a third DUI in seven years or three citations for driving without insurance, can also heighten a charge's classification.
Misdemeanors are punishable by a fine and up to one year in jail. Felonies are punishable by state maximum fines and more than a year imprisonment.
Fighting a Traffic Ticket
The simplest way to resolve a traffic ticket is to admit guilt and pay the fine. You also have the option to contest the ticket in traffic court. While the specifics of this process vary by jurisdiction, there are a few best practices to keep in mind if you go this route.
If police cite you for a violation, carefully review the ticket, paying attention to details such as the alleged violation, date, time, and location. Identify any inaccuracies and leverage any errors in traffic court. Gather as much evidence to support your defense, like witness statements, photographs, or other documentation.
Most of the time, you can go through this process without legal representation. You can also consult with an attorney for more serious traffic offenses, or if the stakes are high. If the points on your license from running a red light could cost you your driver's license, it makes sense to get legal help.
Depending on the strength of your argument and the evidence, the traffic judge may dismiss the ticket. Or they may offer the option of attending traffic school or defensive driving to reduce your fine or keep the points off your driving record.
How an Attorney Can Help With a Traffic Violation
With many traffic infractions, you can resolve by paying your fine and accepting the citation. But some situations benefit from hiring a traffic law attorney in your area, depending on what's at stake.
A $50 ticket can be worth fighting if the points accrued would result in a license suspension or revocation. Even minor moving violations with negligible fines go on your driving record and can result in higher insurance premiums. You want to consider the overall consequences of your violation. An attorney can determine whether it makes sense to fight a traffic charge or just pay the fine.
You should consider hiring a criminal defense attorney for serious traffic offenses like leaving the scene of an accident, reckless driving, or driving under the influence. These charges often come with serious consequences, and you'll want legal advice from an experienced attorney.
Learn More About Traffic Laws
Use the links below to learn more about traffic stops, traffic tickets, driver's license suspensions, vehicle requirements, and more.