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Automobiles

Operation And Maintenance

The operation of an automobile on a public street or highway is a privilege that can be regulated by motor vehicle laws. The individual states derive authority to control traffic from their POLICE POWER, but often they delegate this authority to a local police force. On the national level, Congress is empowered to regulate motor vehicles that are engaged in interstate commerce.

Automobile regulations are provided for the safety and protection of the public. The laws must be reasonable and should not impose an extraordinary burden on the owners or operators. Such laws also provide a means of identifying vehicles involved in an accident or a theft and of raising revenue for the state by fees imposed on the owner or operator.

Registration and Licensing Every state requires the owner of a vehicle to possess two documents: a certificate of ownership, or title, and a certificate of registration. Through registration, the owner's name, the type of vehicle, the vehicle's license plate number, and the VIN are all registered with the state in a central government office. On payment of a fee, a certificate of registration and license plates are given to the owner as evidence of compliance with the law. The operator is required to display the license plates appropriately on the car—one on the back of the vehicle and sometimes one on the front and the back—and have the certificate of registration and license in possession while driving and ready to display when in an accident or requested to do so by a police officer. If a driver moves to another state, she or he must register the vehicle in that state within a certain amount of time, either immediately or within 20 to 30 days.

A driver's license is also mandatory in every state. The age at which a state allows a person to drive varies, though it is usually sixteen. Other qualifications for a driver's license include physical and mental fitness, comprehension of traffic regulations, and ability to operate a vehicle competently. Most states require a person to pass a written examination, an eye test, and a driving test before being issued a license. States generally allow an individual with a learner's permit or temporary license to operate a vehicle when accompanied by a licensed driver. This arrangement enables a person to develop the driving skills needed to qualify for a license. A license can be revoked or suspended when the motorist disregards the safety of people and property, when a physical or mental disability impairs driving ability, or if the motorist fails to accurately disclose information on the license application. When the state revokes a person's license, it permanently denies that person the right to drive; when it suspends a license, it temporarily denies the right to drive.

Because teenaged drivers are more likely to cause traffic accidents, several states have adopted systems of graduated driver licensing (GDL). Under this system, teenaged drivers typically first receive a learner's permit for about six months, during which time all driving must be supervised by an adult. During the next stage, an intermediate level, teen drivers may drive without the supervision of an adult during the daytime but cannot drive at night without an adult until the age of 18, and cannot have more than one teenaged passenger in the car during unsupervised driving times. More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have adopted a GDL system.

Traffic Laws Dozens of laws are related to the operation of an automobile, a large number of which vary by state. Minor traffic offenses include parking and speeding violations. More serious traffic offenses are reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident, and driving without a license. Most states require motorists to file reports with the proper authorities when they are involved in accidents.

Speed limits vary by state. In 1973, during the height of the energy crisis, Congress defined a national speed limit of 55 mph in order to reduce gasoline consumption; the 55-mph limit also had the unintended effect of lowering the traffic fatality rate. Since then, most states have returned to an upper limit of 65 mph. Two types of speed limits are imposed: fixed maximum and PRIMA FACIE. Under fixed maximum limits, it is unlawful to exceed the stated limit anywhere and at any time. Under prima facie limits, it is possible for a driver to prove in certain cases that a speed in excess of the limit was not unsafe and therefore not unlawful, given the condition of the highway, amount of traffic, and other circumstances.

All states require children riding in automobiles to be restrained using safety belts or safety seats. Most states require adults to wear belts as well, though some require belts only for adults in the front seat. Violation of such laws results in a fine. In 1984, New York became the first state to pass a law making seat belts mandatory for adults.

Driving under the Influence Driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs is the major cause of traffic deaths in the United States. Drunk drivers kill an estimated 25,000 people a year. States use different terms to describe driving under the influence of mind-altering chemicals, or what is popularly known as drunk driving. These include driving under the influence (DUI), operating under the influence (OUI), and driving while intoxicated (DWI). To arrest someone for drunk driving, the state must have proof that the person is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, and the person must be in actual physical control of a vehicle and impaired in the ability to operate it safely. Every state has "implied consent" laws that require those with a driver's license to submit to sobriety tests if a police officer suspects they are intoxicated. These tests may include a field sobriety test (a test at the scene, such as walking a straight line), or blood, breath, or urine tests, usually administered at a police station. Refusal to take a sobriety test can result in suspension of the driver's license. Most states have "per se" laws that prohibit persons from driving if they have a blood-alcohol reading above a certain level. Several states have lowered their per se blood-alcohol limits to 0.08 percent. Penalties vary by state but can be particularly severe for repeat offenders, often involving jail sentences and revocation of driving privileges.

DRAMSHOP ACTS make those who sell liquor for consumption on their premises, such as bars and restaurants, liable for damages caused by an intoxicated patron's subsequent actions. In some states, individuals injured by a drunk driver have used such laws to sue bars and restaurants that served liquor to the driver. "Social host" statutes make hosts of parties who serve alcohol and other drugs liable for any damages or injuries caused by guests who subsequently drive while under the influence.

Several national organizations have been formed to combat drunk driving. These include MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD). The legal drinking age has been raised to 21 in every state, largely in an attempt to reduce drunk driving. Most states also make it illegal to transport an open alcoholic beverage container in a vehicle. Alcohol-related deaths as a proportion of all traffic deaths decreased from about 56 percent in 1982 to 47 percent in 1991.

Other Crimes Criminals both target and use automobiles in a number of different types of crime. Cars have been a favorite object of theft ever since their invention. As early as 1919, the DYER ACT, or National Motor Vehicle Theft Act (18 U.S.C.A. § 2311 et seq.), imposed harsh sentences on those who transported stolen vehicles across state lines. Car theft remains a serious problem in many areas of the country and is a major contributor to high insurance premiums in many urban areas. In 1994, Congress passed the Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act (18U.S.C.A. § 511 et seq.; 42 U.S.C.A. § 13701 note, § 14171 [West 1995]), which established a program whereby owners can register their cars with the government, provide information on where their vehicles are usually driven, and affix a decal or marker to the cars. Owners who register their cars in the program authorize the police to stop the cars and question the occupants when the vehicles are out of their normal areas of operation.

Autos are also frequently used to commit crimes. Drivers whose NEGLIGENCE causes accidents that result in the death of other human beings may be found guilty of MANSLAUGHTER (the unlawful killing of another without malice aforethought, that is, without the intention of causing harm through an illegal act), including criminally negligent manslaughter, a crime punishable by imprisonment. Two types of crime that have received a great deal of public attention are drive-by shootings, in which occupants of a vehicle fire guns at pedestrians or at people in other cars, and car-jackings, in which criminals hijack, or take over, cars from their owners or operators, often robbing and sometimes killing the victims in the process. Because of the usually random nature of such crimes, the public has called for severe penalties for them. The VIOLENT CRIME CONTROL AND LAW ENFORCEMENT ACT OF 1994 (Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796) made killings caused by drive-by shootings or car-jackings punishable by death.

Insurance Most states require the owner to acquire auto insurance or deposit a bond before a vehicle can be properly registered. Insurance provides compensation for innocent people who suffer injuries resulting from the negligent operation of a vehicle. Other states have liability, or financial responsibility, statutes that require a motorist to pay for damages suffered in an accident resulting from his or her negligence and to furnish proof of financial capability to cover damages that he or she may cause in the future. These statutes do not necessarily require vehicle liability insurance.

About half of all states require that licensed drivers carry automobile insurance with liability, medical, and physical damage coverage. Liability insurance protects a vehicle owner against financial responsibility for damages caused by the negligence of the insured or other covered

Highway patrol officers, checking for drunk drivers, examine drivers' licenses at a roadblock on a North Carolina highway.
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drivers. It consists of bodily injury, or personal liability protection and property damage protection. Medical payments insurance covers the insured's household for medical and funeral expenses that result from an auto accident. Physical damage insurance consists of collision coverage, which pays for damage to a car resulting from collision, regardless of fault, and comprehensive coverage, which pays for damage from theft, fire, or VANDALISM. Over 20 states also require that drivers carry coverage to protect against uninsured motorists. Such coverage allows insured drivers to receive payments from their own insurer should they suffer injuries caused by an uninsured driver. Most insurance policies offer a choice of deductible, which is the portion of an insurance claim that the insured must pay. The higher the deductible, the lower the annual insurance premium or payment.

Many states have laws requiring no-fault automobile insurance. Under no-fault insurance, each person's own insurance company pays for injury or damage in an auto accident, up to a certain limit, irrespective of whose fault the accident is. Each person is entitled to payment for loss of wages or salary, not exceeding a certain percentage of the value of such loss or a fixed weekly amount.

No-fault statutes provide that every person who receives personal injury benefits gives up the right to sue for damages. However, a person who is licensed to drive in a state that requires no-fault insurance may sue someone who has caused an accident and who is licensed in another state that does not require no-fault insurance. In some states, a person who has not obtained no-fault auto insurance is personally liable to pay damages. Some states do not abolish liability arising from the ownership, maintenance, or operation of a motor vehicle in certain circumstances, such as those in which the harm was intentionally caused, the injured person has suffered death or serious injuries, or medical expenses exceed a certain limit.

States that do not have compulsory automobile insurance typically have financial responsibility acts. These laws are designed to ensure that negligent drivers who injure others will pay any resulting claims. They require a proof of financial responsibility from drivers involved in an accident. After reporting the accident to a state agency, drivers who do not have adequate insurance coverage must post a cash deposit or equivalent bond of up to $60,000, unless the other driver provides a written release from liability.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Approximation of laws to AutopsyAutomobiles - Brief History Of The Automobile, What To Do If You Are In An Auto Accident, Unsafe At Any Speed