The law of traffic offenses, also known as traffic violations, covers unlawful activities that occur while an individual is operating a motor vehicle. Traffic offenses are typically governed by state motor vehicle codes that define offenses ranging from minor infractions to severe violations. Punishments for traffic offenses may be imposed through the court system, or through agency enforcement. Thus, for instance, while an individual who commits a DUI may face criminal charges and possible jail time, a defendant who receives a speeding ticket may face only a fine from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and “points” on his or her license.
In many states, traffic offenses are distinguished as traffic misdemeanors or traffic felonies. The offenses that comprise each of these types of crimes vary significantly by state, but crimes that risk significant harm to other individuals are typically designated as traffic felonies.
Many states issue infractions for offenses less serious than a misdemeanor.
Traffic misdemeanors are those less egregious traffic offenses that can often be dealt with without a lengthy criminal trial. They are typically subject to fines or other administrative punishments, such as driving school. Traffic misdemeanors may include driving without a license or driving with a suspended or revoked license. Reckless driving, such as driving at high speeds or without headlights, may also be punished as a traffic misdemeanor.
Traffic felonies are serious crimes that occur while operating a motor vehicle, and, like all felonies, convictions of them typically lead to a year or more in prison. A motor vehicle is a powerful and potentially deadly instrument that can cause significant injury when used improperly or with a malicious intent. For example, vehicular assault is a traffic felony that arises when an individual uses his or her car to harm or threaten harm to another individual. While intent is typically required, vehicular assault may also result from the negligent operation of a vehicle that results in harm, such as when a driver fails to correctly follow street signs and accidentally hits a pedestrian.
When a driver harms a victim and then leaves the scene, this is classified as a hit and run and is treated very harshly because it indicates that the perpetrator is both culpable for his or her actions and unwilling to take responsibility for those actions. If a hit and run or another vehicular accident results in death, a defendant may also face a felony charge of vehicular homicide.
Driving While Under the Influence
Driving a vehicle while under the influence (DUI) of drugs or alcohol is a serious and widespread traffic offense. Also known in some jurisdictions as operating under the influence (OWI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI), DUIs resulted in almost 300,000 crashes in 2012 and over 10,000 deaths. DUIs can be treated as either traffic misdemeanors or traffic felonies, depending on the context of the specific circumstances. The greater the risk posed to the safety of the public and other drivers, or the seriousness of the harm incurred, the higher the penalties for the drunk driver. While some states have enacted statutes allowing for minor fines and alcohol addiction classes for first-time offenders, others have imposed a “zero-tolerance” policy that imposes jail time and significant fines on drunk drivers.