Rules of The Road: The Importance of Knowing and Obeying Traffic LawsUpdated April 28, 2022
The United States’ Highway Transportation System is held up by more traffic laws than you can count. Each one has been set by a state government or the federal government, to protect the public and maintain order on our nation’s roadways. Traffic laws dictate the speed you must travel at, the maneuvers you can make, where you can and cannot drive and how you must drive in certain situations. Many laws are constant, though there are others that apply only at certain times of day or times of the year.
Importance of traffic laws
Traffic laws are important because they keep people safe. A motor vehicle is a dangerous and deadly weapon in the wrong hands. The safety of all road users depends on all motorists following a precise set of rules. Approximately 5 million collisions and crashes happen in America each year. In 2017, 37,133 traffic-related deaths occurred, a large portion of which can be attributed to one or more drivers not obeying traffic laws.
Some of the most important laws you will learn during your driver’s education program deal with “right-of-way”. Every interaction you have with other motorists, pedestrians and cyclists while driving is dictated by right-of-way. Whenever your path crosses that of another road user, right-of-way rules will prevent conflict by determining who should go first and who must yield. Without right-of-way laws, a “free-for-all” situation would result in traffic blocks and many more collisions.
Keep in mind that it is always safer to yield in a situation where you are not certain who has the right-of-way. Plus, treating other drivers courteously and allowing them to go first helps to keep traffic moving and avoid animosity between road users.
The history of traffic laws
American road users are fortunate to have comprehensive federal traffic rules and law enforcement systems governing public roadway and vehicle use. When motor vehicles first appeared on our roadways toward the end of the 19th century – and for many decades to come – these protective systems were not in place. Driving laws were extremely limited and set exclusively by state governments, right up until the late 1960s.
Mandatory vehicle registration was one of the first traffic laws to be introduced, with New York leading the way in 1901. Prompted by the ever-worsening chaos on New York City’s roadways, William Phelps Eno wrote “Rules of the Road” in 1903, proposing a city-wide traffic code. His manual introduced many new driving regulations and recommended practices, though it was a long time before drivers started obeying these rules or local authorities actively enforced them. While firmly believing that signal lights at intersections would never be able to manage traffic, Phelps did introduce a fundamental road rule that underpins traffic law today. That is, the idea that slow traffic should keep right while left-hand lanes are used for overtaking.
The number of vehicles on the road has steadily increased throughout the 20th century, and with it, the number of traffic-related injuries and fatalities. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was established in 1966 in response to this growing threat. The act empowered the federal government to set and enforce new vehicle and road safety standards, through what we now know as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Traffic laws are designed and adapted to suit changing road conditions, in a bid to maximize road user-safety. Practically every year, new driving regulations are introduced around the United States.
Traffic law enforcement
As traffic laws have evolved, so too has the way in which they are enforced, and the penalties incurred by failing to obey them. Studies have proven time and time again that drivers are more likely to abide by the rules if they fear punishment and less likely to if they believe they can get away with it. As a result, traffic laws are now strictly enforced, with each state’s government having a dedicated department for the enforcement of traffic rules and regulations.
Most traffic law violations are “strict liability” offenses rather than crimes, for which the offender is issued a ticket. This means that a motorist can be found guilty and punished without having to be tried in criminal court. Such violations include:
- Illegal parking
- Failure to stop at a “STOP” sign
- Driving with a broken headlight
While these are not considered criminal acts, the punishments associated with them can be severe – particularly when the misdemeanor has endangered other road users. Depending on the severity and whether it is a first time or repeat offense, the penalty for committing a traffic violation may include:
- A fine
- A permanent or temporary driving ban
- Points added to your license (which accumulate and may result in loss of your license)
Some more serious traffic law violations, such as driving under the influence (DUI), can result in criminal charges and imprisonment.
Not all drivers obey traffic laws
Despite going a long way to discourage dangerous driving, traffic laws, fines and penalties cannot make all drivers obey the rules. Motorists frequently break the rules of the road through deliberate disregard or simply by not paying attention. Many millions of traffic tickets are issued in America every year, with roughly 125,000 citations written up each day. Drivers must keep themselves safe and on the right side of the law by driving with caution, knowing the law and paying attention to traffic control devices.
Remember that you can control your own actions, but you cannot predict how other drivers will behave. Never assume that motorists around you will follow traffic laws to the letter. Be vigilant, at all times. If you do observe another motorist making a mistake, do not attempt to reprimand them by shouting or sounding your horn. This will only add further danger to an already risky situation.
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