Most motorists will likely receive a traffic ticket or be stopped by law enforcement for a traffic violation at least once in their lifetimes. Minor traffic violations such as speeding or double parking generally are classified as "infractions" that are not punishable by jail time. Most of the time, fines for traffic tickets can be paid through the mail without the need for legal representation.
Traffic laws exist to protect drivers, pedestrians, and other users or passengers using public roads. Traffic laws establish the rules of the road and regulate behavior when driving. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were over 38,000 deaths from motor vehicles in 2020 alone. The department also reported that the most recent estimate for the cost of crashes is $340 billion. While nothing can prevent every accident on American roadways, traffic laws exist to reduce these numbers and promote public health and safety when driving.
FindLaw's Traffic Laws section includes helpful information about traffic stops, vehicle searches, motorist rights, and contesting a traffic ticket. This section also provides a state-by-state directory of traffic laws and DMV offices.
A Brief History of Traffic Laws
Motor vehicles were not widely used when they were first introduced at the turn of the 20th century. Driving laws generally followed the rules established for horse-drawn wagons and carriages. As motor vehicles became more popular (and dangerous), regulations followed. The state of Connecticut passed the first statewide traffic laws in 1901, which included a maximum speed limit of 15 miles per hour.
Many of today's traffic regulations that are taken for granted, such as stop signs and crosswalks for pedestrians, were first suggested by William Eno. Eno authored the first city traffic code for New York City in 1903. He also advocated for slow traffic to remain in the right lane and for cars to pass in the left lane, the use of one-way streets, and the construction of safety islands between opposing lanes of traffic. Many of his ideas were gradually adopted as states developed their own traffic codes.
In 1910, New York introduced the first prohibition on driving while intoxicated. Safety equipment, such as seat belts (safety belts) and airbags, were created in the 1950s and 60s. Later, states began to require the use of seat belts in the 80s. Most recently, states have rolled out "distracted driving" laws. These laws restrict motorists from using a cell phone or other digital device while driving.
Common Traffic Law Violations
Each state has its own traffic code. While there are some variations from one state to the next, there is a great deal of consistency in 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.
However, the maximum speed limit on freeways differs substantially from state to state. For example, there is one state highway that Texas boasts a limit of 85 miles per hour. State and local municipalities also might have ordinances that must be followed by drivers. Some examples of common traffic safety law violations include:
- Speeding over the posted speed limit (which can be detected by traffic control devices)
- Driving on the wrong side of the road
- Failure to come to a complete stop at a red light, stop sign, or railroad crossing
- Failure to wear a safety belt
- Failure to stop for 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 slow down through a work zone, school zone, or yellow light
- Failure to yield at a yield sign to oncoming traffic
- Failure to use turn signals when changing lanes
- Failure to keep children out of the front seat at a certain age
- Defective or unilluminated headlights or taillights
FindLaw provides information on all 50 states' traffic laws in the section below. Even if you are not facing charges for a traffic violation, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with your local and state driving laws.
How an Attorney Can Help with a Traffic Violation
Many motorists simply shrug off a traffic violation by writing a check and sending it to their local traffic court. However, it often pays to hire a lawyer, depending on the stakes of the cited violation. Even a ticket that carries a small fine could be worth fighting if the accrual of points on the driver's record would result in a license suspension. Also, even minor traffic tickets with small fines could result in higher insurance premiums. So, it may be necessary to consider the overall consequences of the violation.
Additionally, some states consider driving-related violations to be misdemeanors. For example, failure to drive with a valid driver's license or vehicle registration may lead to a misdemeanor. Anyone facing a misdemeanor charge should consider speaking to a lawyer skilled in criminal defense or specializing in traffic offenses.
Consult a Local Traffic Attorney to Help with Your Case
Generally, you should always consider hiring a lawyer for serious traffic safety offenses. Examples of more serious offenses include leaving the scene of an accident, reckless driving, and any impaired driving offense. Some of these crimes are so serious that you might even qualify for a court-appointed attorney. A consultation with an attorney can also help with lesser violations, as an attorney can help develop strategies for contesting violations that could lead to a license suspension or other collateral consequences.
Learn About State Traffic Laws
Click on a link below to learn more about traffic stops, traffic tickets, and driver's license or vehicle information.