10 Things People Misunderstand About the Law

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A Brief History

On May 20, 1899, history’s first traffic ticket was issued to a New York cab driver, Jacob German who was zipping down Lexington Street at 12 mph.  Ever since, drivers have been arguing about traffic tickets with no real idea what the law is, just basing their beliefs on urban myths that are frequently untrue.  We list 10 of the most misunderstood facts about everyday traffic and other laws as told by a retired police captain.  (Note: laws vary from state to state and sometimes from town to town.  We know that and are trying to avoid our own mix-ups in that regard.)

Digging Deeper

10. You do not have to come to a complete stop at a stop sign with a white border around it. 

This belief is so stupid it is hard to believe so many people believe it.  The same thing applies to “rolling stops” or “Hollywood stops” where your car almost but not quite comes to a stop before you proceed.  Stop means stop. No forward motion. No set time limit either, as some folks will tell you with a straight face that the law says you must count to 3 (or something) before you continue. The law says you have to stop, however briefly, a complete stop before you go, that is all.

9.  You can have an alcoholic drink in a vehicle as long as you are not driving.

This one is tricky because it may be true in some states.  In most states, even passengers are forbidden from drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle.  You better know the law in the state you are riding through!

8.  You could drive with your emergency flashers on if your car is damaged or overloaded.

What you can do is get towed when you get stopped for driving with a dragging muffler or on a bare rim, flashers or no flashers.  In most states, driving with flashers on is actually illegal.  They are to be used only when the car is broken down and not moving for safety reasons, NOT because it is raining real hard and you “just want to be extra safe.”

7.  Pick-up and SUV drivers can use snowplow lights instead of headlights.

Of course they can, as long as they have a plow blade on the truck.  If they are tooling along in the summertime and are using their plow lights instead of headlights they are likely inconsiderately blinding other drivers and deserve a ticket.

6.  If you have a headlight out, drive with your bright lights on.

Actually, this one just makes you liable to get a ticket for headlight out (two headlights required) and also for failing to dim bright lights on the approach of traffic (duty to dim).  If you know a headlight is out, get a replacement bulb right now, not next month.

5.  The stores sell it so it must be legal.

All sorts of cool customizing products are sold to spiff up your ride, such as smoke colored lens covers, window tint, various colored lights, extra bright driving lights, window shades and decals among others.  Read the package before you go off to your friends about what a jerk the cop was for writing you a ticket!  Those products usually have (often in small print) “For Off Road Use Only.”  That means driving with them on your car on a public road may well get you a citation.  One particularly goofy idea is putting a shade on the windshield or front seat side window to block the sun.  This could get you killed because of obstructed vision, or maybe just a ticket.

4.  Statutes of limitations will let you off scott free if you wait long enough before getting caught.

For certain laws, especially lawsuits, that may be true, but for some laws like murder or treason there is no statute of limitations.  Also, most statutes of limitations regarding criminal laws do not start until the authorities are aware of the crime or the time you become a suspect, depending on the jurisdiction.  If you notice, people are convicted all the time of rape, child abuse, and murder from cases that happened many years ago.  It is a mistake to think you can commit a crime and perhaps hide somewhere until the SOL is up because if you do, you will be SOL!

3.  You cannot get a ticket for blowing a red light if you beeped your horn.

Whoever dreamed this one up deserves an award for fiction.  Of course you can get a ticket for blowing a red light whether you blew your horn or not.  You will also be just as dead if a cement truck is going the other way through the green light.

2.  You can call a cop names and/spit on him and he has to take it.

No, he does not and he probably will not.  Cops have a way of thinking of something to arrest someone for if they really want to.  Often a charge of disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace will cover these situations.  Maybe misconduct at an emergency or obstructing official business.  They can be geniuses when it comes to thinking of reasons to arrest someone. Spit on any cop I know and you are very likely to be kissing the cement in a hurry.  Many jurisdictions consider that an assault in this era of HIV and Hepatitis, etc..

1.  There is a minimum amount of speed over the speed limit that cops have to give you before they write a ticket.

No, there is not.  You can get a ticket for speeding even if you are driving under the speed limit if conditions make that speed dangerous. (Driving too fast for conditions.)  Normally, it is true that police and highway patrolmen will have their own idea of at what threshold to start writing tickets, be it 5, 10, or 15 miles an hour over the posted speed limit, but there is no legal requirement for that.  One mile an hour over a speed limit is technically speeding.

Question for students (and subscribers): Tell us which laws you think many people misunderstand in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Frater, Jamie.  I Call Bullshit: Debunking the Most Commonly Repeated Myths.  Ulysses Press, 2011.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.