Overview of Private Motor Vehicle Traffic Regulation


The ability to drive a motor vehicle on a public highway is not a fundamental right under the United States Constitution; it is a revocable privilege that is granted upon compliance with statutory licensing procedures. Whether the right to operate a motor vehicle it is termed a right or a privilege, one's ability to travel on public highways is always subject to reasonable regulation by the state in the valid exercise of its police power. Accordingly, state vehicle codes were promulgated to increase the safety and efficiency of public roadways, and it is viewed as an enhancement rather than an infringement upon a citizen's right to travel. The privilege properly may be revoked for noncompliance, and revocation is not an unconstitutional infringement of the revoked driver's right to travel.

The law or rules of the road have been enacted into law by state statute or local ordinance. Depending upon the offense, the violation can be a criminal offense or a "traffic" offense or infraction, which, although not a crime, is governed by rules governing lesser crimes such as misdemeanors. In general, if there is a conflict between a local traffic ordinance and a state statute regulating the same subject, the state statute will prevail.

Typically, traffic regulations will address the following subject matter:

  • Restrictions or exclusions of certain motor vehicles from particular highways or streets, including restrictions as to the direction of traffic and one-way streets;
  • Erection of traffic control devices, such as stop signs, and traffic lights or signals;
  • Turns at intersections, use of turn signals, and U-turns;
  • Provisions governing the portion of highways to be used;
  • Following, passing, and approaching other vehicles;
  • Backing of a motor vehicle upon a highway or street;
  • Offenses regarding licensing of vehicles and drivers and vehicle registrations;
  • Regulations and offenses as to speed and stopping;
  • Rights of way;
  • Driver's duties after involvement in an accident;
  • Driving a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or narcotic drugs;
  • Reckless or negligent driving.

Enforcement of these traffic regulations is the responsibility of the state and local public entity. The punishment imposed is based upon the category of offense. A state's traffic and vehicle code will identify whether the offense is a minor traffic offense or infraction, for which a fine is imposed, or a misdemeanor or felony, both of which carry a fine, imprisonment, or both. In most cases, driver demerit "points" are imposed. Moreover, provisions are made for repeat offenders, resulting in increased fines, imprisonment, suspension or revocation of one's license, and traffic violator schools.

Copyright 2011 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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