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Penalties for Traffic Offenses

NCJ Number
Traffic Laws Commentary Volume: 7 Issue: 4 Dated: (September 1978) Pages: complete issue
J W English; R S Want
Date Published
86 pages
This report reviews the various traffic law penalties defined by the Uniform Vehicle Code and the laws of the 50 States and the District of Columbia.
The report examines the penalties and compares them from one State to another and from one offense to another. It also discusses some of the basic approaches to penalization and the specific penalty options, such as fines, imprisonment, and the more novel postconviction remedies (i.e., alcohol and drug abuse programs). In addition, the following 10 offenses are used throughout the report to make State-by-State comparisons of penalties: reckless driving; driving while under the influence; homicide by vehicle; failure to obey an officer directing traffic; following too closely; stop sign violation; failure of pedestrian outside crosswalk to yield; failure to stop for a school bus; violation of the basic speed rule; and stopping, standing, or parking where prohibited. Findings indicate that the fine is a universal penalty option, although there is little uniformity in statutory traffic penalties. Most traffic offenses are considered misdemeanors, although about half the States classify serious offenses, such as homicide by vehicle, as felonies. In 17 States, some traffic offenses are considered infractions, without imprisonment as a penalty. Although the typical statute specifies a penalty range within which the court may assess the penalty, 11 States do not specify minimum penalties for any of the offenses reviewed, and only 17 States specify a minimum penalty applicable to minor offenses. In addition, most States have retained imprisonment as a penalty option, use penalty increments for repeat offenders, and employ fines as the most prevalent penalty option. Only 6 States have vehicle code sections authorizing installment imprisonment, about 25 have programs for alcohol/drug abusers, and 15 authorize other driver improvement remedies. This analysis indicates that penalties for traffic offenses are determined arbitrarily, with little regard for any uniform national policy. Footnotes and tables illustrating State-by-State penalty comparisons are included.