Traffic Violations You May Not Even Know You Are Committing

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Law enforcement officers may stop a vehicle when they have reasonable suspicion to believe that the driver has violated a traffic law. See State v. Styles, 362 N.C. 412, 415, 665 S.E.2d 438, 440 (2008). This rule applies regardless of whether the offense is a felony, misdemeanor or infraction, and regardless of whether the officer has an ulterior motive for making the stop. See Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996).

The expansive scope of this authority is well-recognized.  Some have argued that the “heavy and minute[]” regulation of vehicles renders “total compliance with traffic and safety rules nearly impossible.” Whren, 517 U.S. at 810 (citing petitioner’s argument to this effect). Thus, they say, “a police officer will almost invariably be able to catch any given motorist in a technical violation.”  Id.

A quick review of criminal case law provides some support for that notion. Law enforcement officers frequently substantiate more serious criminal conduct through citizen encounters that begin with a simple traffic stop.  See, e.g., State v. Heien, 366 N.C. 271 (2012) (defendant stopped for ostensible brake light violation and arrested for drug trafficking); State v. Dickenson, __ N.C. App. ___ (April 15, 2014) (unpublished) (defendant stopped for failure to wear seatbelt and arrested for drug trafficking); State v. Franklin, __ N.C. App. __, 736 S.E.2d 218 (2012) (defendant stopped for seatbelt violation and arrested for drug crimes); State v. Townes, ___ N.C. App. ___, 734 S.E.2d 139 (November 6, 2012) (unpublished) (defendant stopped based on DMV insurance stop and arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and felony drug crime); State v. Osterhoudt, ___ N.C. App. ___; 731 S.E.2d 454, 460 (2012) (defendant stopped after officer observed him cross double yellow line while making right turn and arrested for DWI).

And while most folks know that speeding and failure to wear a seatbelt is unlawful, many are surprised to learn about other common driving behaviors that likewise are prohibited.

My top three little-known and oft-ignored traffic rules are below.

1. Stopping behind the white line. When a stop sign or traffic signal requires a vehicle to come to a complete stop at an intersection or some other place in the road, the vehicle must stop at the appropriately marked stop line, if there is one.  See G.S. 20-158(b)(5); (c)(5). A driver who stops his or her vehicle before entering an intersection or proceeding past the sign or signal—but beyond a marked stop line—has committed a traffic violation for which he or she may be stopped. I always stop before the sign or signal, but I seldom focus on whether my front tires are over the line, unless there is a marked crosswalk. I’m sure I’m not alone.

2. The two-second rule. G.S. 20-152 prohibits the driver of a motor vehicle from following another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent.  The State Highway Patrol recommends that motorists keep at least one car length interval per 10 miles per hour of speed.  So, if the car in front of you is traveling 60 miles per hour, you should remain six car lengths behind it.  The state DMV handbook advises drivers to follow the “two-second rule,” which requires drivers to allow two seconds between the time the vehicle ahead of you passes a given point and the time your vehicle reaches the same point.  I’m going to test this one out on I-40 on my way home.  If I don’t, I’m subject to being stopped for following too closely in violation of G.S. 20-152.  In United States v. Mubdi, 691 F.3d 334, 337 (4th Cir. 2012), cert. granted, judgment vacated on other grounds, 133 S. Ct. 2851, 186 L. Ed. 2d 902 (U.S. 2013), the NC Highway Patrol officer who stopped the defendant explained that he relied on the two-second and car-length rules in determining whether a driver had violated G.S. 20-152.

3. Signaling before changing lanes. G.S. 20-154 requires drivers on streets, highways and public vehicular areas to signal before starting stopping or turning from a direct line if another vehicle may be affected.  Changing lanes is a turn requiring a signal under this provision.  See Sass v. Thomas, 90 N.C. App. 719 (1988).  An officer may not make an investigatory stop of a vehicle for failing to use a turn signal unless a reasonable officer would have believed that the defendant’s failure to use the turn signal might have affected the operation of another vehicle.  See State v. Ivey, 360 N.C. 562 (2006) (finding that no violation of G.S. 20-154(a) occurred when a defendant failed to use his turn signal before making a right hand turn at an intersection, which was the only legal movement he could make). Our state appellate courts have concluded that a defendant’s failure to signal before changing lanes when driving immediately in front of another vehicle may affect the operation of the trailing vehicle, see State v. Styles, 362 N.C. 412 (2008), as may turning right in medium traffic while travelling about 100 feet in front of another car, see State v. McRae, 203 N.C. App. 310 (2010).  My experience suggests that many, many people do not know about, or possibly know, but do not care to comply with, this rule.

Have a favorite obscure traffic rule of your own for which a motorist might be stopped?  Share it using the comment feature below.

14 comments on “Traffic Violations You May Not Even Know You Are Committing

  1. If you are in the municipal limits of Dunn, beware of the graveyard, or as my grand-pappy in Georgia called it-the “bury-patch.”

    N.C., Sec. 5-8. Use of vehicles.

    It shall be unlawful for any person to enter the city cemeteries with a vehicle, except for the purposes of carrying material to make graves, building monuments, carrying tombstones or other material for ornamental purposes, transporting a dead body for interment, conveying therefrom a dead body exhumed, or other legitimate business related to the city cemeteries.

    (Code 1974, § 5-11; Ord. of 1-5-89(1))

  2. 20-129(4): (Windshield wipers in the rain/sleet/snow)

    20-116 (b): (No passenger-type vehicle shall be operated on any highway with any load … extending more than six inches beyond the line of the fenders on the right side thereof)

    20-127: (Window tint violations)

    20-63: (Registration plates) There are a bunch of violations under this section. You cannot “display a number plate in other than a horizontal upright position (Class 2 misdemeanor)”. You cannot cover or conceal any portion of the plate. If the plate is faded or not “plainly visible” at a distance of 100 feet (daylight) that is a violation. Those licence plate frames that cover the renewal stickers: violations.

  3. I feel like I see more and more people these days who have put their renewal (year) sticker on top of the month sticker. How this makes sense in anyone’s mind I don’t know. But I’m curious if this is an actual infraction. I couldn’t see anything explicit in 20-63 about concealing the month sticker, but I would think a LEO would need to know in what month someone’s plate expires. Anyone have any wisdom to share?

    • On second thought, it would seem like “Any operator of a motor vehicle who shall otherwise intentionally cover any number or registration renewal sticker on a registration plate with any material that makes the number or registration renewal sticker illegible commits an infraction and shall be penalized under G.S. 14-3.1.” would apply.

  4. Fayetteville Municipal Ordinance Sec 16-215

    No person, when riding, shall allow any part of his body to protrude beyond the limits of the vehicle in which he is riding, except to give such signals as are by law required, and no person shall hang on to any vehicle whatsoever.

    So don’t be hanging that arm out the window on that hot summery day.

  5. Do the laws matter for stops? I don’t think so. If an officer wants to make a stop they will, and fabricate a reason latter. The laws that regulate them are not enforced.

    • I assume in your next post you’ll be citing your peer-reviewed study that supports this inflammatory claim that paints every police officer as dishonest.

      Otherwise it’s just anecdotal and that makes my mirror opposite observation on the subject just as valid.

      • J.C. is right. The ninety-five percent that are dishonest give the other five percent a bad name; but those five percent that are honest condone the behavior of the ninety-five percent, which rolls them in as well. J.C., with video cameras on every phone, your ability to defend yourself against cops being crooked is diminished. But no worry, the DA won’t do anything but participate in any cover up.

        • Sadly, as is often the case when broad brushstrokes are used to paint any profession, the only way you’d ever know is if you were a police officer for awhile.
          Most cops hold “bad cops” in even lower regard than the day-in-and-day-out criminals that they deal with. But ultimately how they get dealt with depends on the leadership at the agency. If you have a Chief or Sheriff who will not put up with it, then it is far easier to root the bad apples out.
          Video cameras are great. Every cruiser should be equipped with one. I’ve personally found that video cameras more often than not serve to vindicate police officers in cases of citizens complaints.

  6. I find it rather fascinating that one who drives a car does not bother to learn the traffic law….curious as to what people think those white lines at intersections/traffic lights/stop signs are for…the starting gate or finish line? As to signals on cars….amazing that people drive and do not realize that they have any and consider changing lanes their right versus wait till it is safe and I give you the opportunity versus causing me to brake or hit you and lastly that following a vehicle so close you could invite yourself to lunch is simply doing what NASCAR drivers do so it must be okay. Then when the “accident” occurs they ask…what happened..I didn’t do anything wrong! We need more traffic cops…no tax increases necessary if you nail everybody!

  7. When making a right turn into a roadway that has two lanes, is it illegal to jump immediately from the closest on your right to the left lane? If so, would this be an illegal lane change? After turning right into the far right lane, how long should a driver wait before making a legal lane change into the left lane.

  8. I have a question. In NC is it illegal to pass in an intersection. For example, when two two lane roads intersect.

  9. In NJ you must follow the course markers which are the white arrows painted in your lane. So if the marker is a forward arrow you may not make a turn.

  10. Tailgaters are vile, worthless pieces of dung. They shouldn’t even be licensed to drive. The police should stop more of them. I fart in their general direction.

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