Overlooked Road Rules & Traffic Laws That Deserve Your AttentionUpdated Aug. 1, 2019
In this section, we cover various miscellaneous traffic laws which every driver must be aware of, even though may not be relevant so frequently as speed laws, right-of-way rules and other regulations you must adhere to on a day-to-day basis. Unless you are well informed of the rules in your state regarding leaving children unattended in a vehicle, transporting passengers in trailers or how much cargo you can carry, you could inadvertently break a traffic law without even knowing it existed.
- Leaving children in a car
- Loading a vehicle
- Obstructing the driver’s view
- Driving in caravans
- Passengers riding in trailers
- Riding in the bed of a pickup truck
- Driving through canyons and mountain roads
- Driving away without paying for gasoline
- Abandoning animals
- Habitual truancy and school performance
- Minor’s firearm convictions
- Theft and unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle
- Make sure you know the law
Leaving children in a car
There is no federal law governing how old a child must be to be left unattended in a vehicle, nor under what circumstances it is permitted. Drivers must know that leaving an unsupervised child in a car is dangerous and as a result, has been made illegal in many states. In some states, it is illegal to leave a child in a vehicle for any amount of time, whereas in others, maximum time limits of five or ten minutes apply. The age at which a child may be left unattended in a car varies greatly around the United States. Most laws refer to children under six years old.
You must refer to child passenger laws in your state’s own driving handbook and the DMV website for locally specific information on this matter. Any person responsible for a child who is found to be in violation of a law governing unattended children in vehicles will be punished with a fine. If the child is placed in any danger or injured as a result of your actions, you may be tried as a criminal.
Here are some examples of “unsupervised children in vehicles” laws around the United States:
- California: Children under six may not be left unattended in a vehicle for any amount of time, unless supervised by another person of at least 12 years old.
- Illinois: Children under five may not be left unattended in a vehicle for more than 10 minutes, unless supervised by another person of at least 14 years old.
- Maryland: Children under eight may not be left unattended in a locked car for any amount of time, unless supervised by another person of at least 13 years old.
- Texas: Children under six may not be left unattended in a vehicle for more than five minutes. No provision for supervision by older children.
Several other states including Missouri, Michigan and Kentucky do not have laws specifically prohibiting leaving children in vehicles. However, it is not permitted if it “endangers” the child in any way. For instance:
- If conditions present a significant risk to the child’s safety (e.g. extreme heat or cold).
- The vehicle’s engine is running, or you have left the keys in the ignition.
- The vehicle is positioned precariously or parked in a dangerous area.
Remember to check your state’s unattended child laws and never - under ANY circumstances - leave a child in a vehicle if doing so puts them at risk.
Loading a vehicle
Some states have specific rules concerning:
- The size of objects that a vehicle may transport (relative to the size of the vehicle).
- How cargo must be secured while being transported.
For example, California traffic laws prohibits drivers from carrying anything in or on a vehicle which extends beyond the fenders on the left side at all, or more than six inches on the right side.
It is important to check out loading in your state driving manual, to make sure you do not accidentally break the rules by doing something you believe to be safe. Whether your state has laws specifically relating to cargo or not, you would be breaking the law by driving any vehicle that is overloaded or loaded in such a way that you cannot drive safely.
Obstructing the driver’s view
A vehicle would be considered “loaded in such a way that it cannot be driven safely” if any cargo or passengers it carries are obstructing the driver’s view of the road. Vehicles must not be loaded with passenger or objects to the extent that the driver cannot see well-enough to safely maneuver the vehicle. This law applies to some extent in most states.
Many states also include a rule stating that the driver’s ability to control the vehicle must not be adversely affected by cargo. For instance, it would be against the law for an object or passenger to be positioned in such a way that the driver could not easily reach the gear stick.
Driving in caravans
Motorists are generally not permitted to drive in a caravan or motorcade, as this may lead them to leave insufficient space between their vehicles. In Georgia law, drivers of trucks and vehicles towing trailers are required to leave enough space between themselves and other similar vehicles to allow other road users room to overtake. This specific law applies when driving outside business or residential districts, as it is often not possible to leave overtaking space between vehicles when driving on business and residential roadways.
It is likely that your state imposes a similar caravan law to the one mentioned here – check your driver’s manual. You should also find that any trailers towed by vehicles must be under a certain size. In Georgia, trailers wider than 8 feet, 6 inches are not allowed on the highway.
Passengers riding in trailers
Most states have laws which prohibit passengers from riding in any vehicle-drawn trailer. Riding in a trailer is illegal and dangerous as passengers would not have access to federally approved restraints such as seat belts. These laws sometimes have exceptions. For instance, riding in a trailer may be permitted on farm land or private property.
The laws concerning passengers riding in recreational campers and similar trailers are considerably different from one state to the next. Often, a distinction is made between “5th wheel” trailers, travel trailers and truck campers. It is best to check these rules with the state authority before transporting passengers.
Riding in the bed of a pickup truck
In general, passengers are not permitted to ride in the load space or “bed” of pickup trucks, unless that vehicle is fitted with federally approved passenger restraints. There are usually exceptions to this law, for instance: in Texas, passengers may ride in the bed of a pickup truck on private property, farm land, farm to market roads and beaches.
Drivers must not allow passengers to ride in the trunk of their car. Most states prohibit passengers from traveling in or on any part of a vehicle not specifically designed for the purpose of carrying passengers, except during emergencies.
Driving through canyons and mountain roads
There a traffic laws in many states dictating how motorists must drive on mountain roads or through canyons, in the interest of maintaining safety. You should check out these rules before driving in any mountainous region.
Georgia law states that vehicles driving through canyons, defiles and mountain roads must keep as close to the right-hand edge of the roadway as possible. If any part of the vehicle will encroach on the left-hand side of the roadway while driving through a curve, the driver is legally required to sound their horn in advance of the curve. Some states also make headlight use mandatory when approaching blind curves on mountain roads.
Driving away without paying for gasoline
There are absolutely no exceptions to this law: driving off the premises of a gas station without paying for gas you have put in your tank is illegal. Any person found violating this law will be punished with a fine, a term of imprisonment or both. While this law applies in every state, the punishments for driving away without paying for gas vary across the country. Check for local information in your driving handbook and driver’s ed materials.
Abandoning or dumping any animal on or near to a roadway constitutes cruelty and is a serious criminal offense in every state. Like most laws, the punishments for abandoning an animal vary state by state. Any person convicted of this offense will be issued with sizable fine (up to $1000 in California) and depending on the severity of the crime, may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment in county jail.
Habitual truancy and school performance
As of 2018, 29 states have laws which link teen driving privileges to school truancy and academic performance. California and Wisconsin laws state that minors between the ages of 13 and 18 may have their driving privileges revoked if they are found guilty of habitual truancy from school. Children who are not yet old enough to hold a permit may be delayed in obtaining one when they come of age.
In other states, such as Kansas and Oregon, the DMV has the power to suspend any student’s driving license if the headteacher of the school reports that the child has “violated behavioral rules”. Most states require teens to be enrolled in school or hold a high school diploma (or equivalent qualification) to be eligible for a driver’s license.
Minor’s firearm convictions
Any minor caught and convicted for unlawful firearm use will likely have their driving privileges delayed, suspended or revoked as punishment. This applies in California, where minors guilty of unlawful firearm use may have their driver’s license suspended for up to five years.
Minors aged 13 or over may lose their driving privileges or have the issuance of their driving permit delayed, if they are found guilty of vandalism. This includes graffiti of any kind. As with punishment for unlawful firearm use, this law is widely applicable but may not be relevant to every state.
Theft and unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle
Taking or driving a vehicle which does not belong to you without consent from the owner is a public offense. This is true even if you do not intend to steal the vehicle. The punishments a driver may receive for violating this law are different in every state and will vary considerably from one case to the next, based on the reason the vehicle was taken or driven, and whether property damage or injury was caused. Persons convicted of this offense in California may receive a fine of up to $5000, a prison sentence, or both penalties.
As you might imagine, the penalties imposed on a person for taking or driving an emergency response vehicle or law enforcement vehicle without permission are significantly more severe. In most states, this would be considered a felony.
Littering is against the law in every state, though the details of the law and the punishments incurred when it is violated may differ. All drivers must refer to the information concerning littering laws in their driving handbook. Most state littering rules state that drivers may not throw a cigarette, cigar or any flaming substance from their vehicles, nor any other litter. The term “litter” covers any and all discarded materials, including trash, waste material, empty food cartons, building materials and dead animals. Leaving litter on or beside the roadway is also illegal.
Make sure you know the law
You will need much of the information covered in this block of articles when taking your initial learner’s permit test, and then later, when you begin learning to drive. It is important to remember that traffic laws in different states are often similar but rarely identical. In addition to working through the information we provide, you must look up state-specific rules and laws in your official driving manual and driver’s ed materials.
It is every driver’s individual responsibility to make sure they know and adhere to the rules of the road. This includes knowing the rules if you travel to a different state. If you are pulled over by a law enforcement officer for committing a traffic violation, claiming not to be aware of committing an offense is unlikely to get you off the hook! Remember, rules of the road have been established for your safety. As such, they are strictly enforced.
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