The Importance of Traffic Laws

Traffic laws are important to maintain order and efficiency on the roadways. Failure to obey these rules can lead to fines, license suspension and even death.


Each state defines its own set of traffic laws. However, there are many common regulations that apply across States and even between local jurisdictions within a State.

Stop Signs

Regulatory signs are those that require the driver to take an action, such as the STOP or YIELD. They usually have a red background with white letters or symbols, although they may be yellow, green or some other color. They may also have a circle, octagon or rectangular shape. Regulatory and warning signs are most often placed at or near intersections. They are also found on freeways, expressways and major highways.

The stop sign was first introduced in 1900 by Eno Schank, a wealthy New Englander who wrote an article about it for Rider and Driver magazine. It was a civilizing notion in an age when street traffic was chaotic and dangerous. The sign’s purpose is to assign the right-of-way to the approaching vehicles at an intersection.

When a STOP sign is installed, the drivers must come to a full stop at the stop line or four feet in advance of a crosswalk and then wait for all traffic to clear before proceeding through the intersection. The octagonal shape of the sign was chosen to make it easily identifiable by its color and shape, even at night.

When a City traffic engineer reviews an intersection for the need of a stop sign, factors such as prevailing traffic volume, restricted sight distance and reported accident history are considered. Many times the engineering review shows that other traffic improvements, such as improving intersection visibility and sight distance or using less restrictive signing, can eliminate the need for a stop sign.

Yield Signs

You might see these signs on intersections where roads merge, or at roundabouts. They are different from stop signs, and look a little like octagons, but they still mean the same thing – drivers need to yield (or let other vehicles pass) first.

A driver must slow down, cover their brake, and scan well ahead when approaching a yield sign. If the road is clear, they can proceed through the intersection. If the road looks busy, the driver should stop and wait until other traffic is clear of the intersection before proceeding.

The same applies to pedestrians. If a driver is crossing the road to enter or exit a driveway, alley, or another paved roadway, they must yield to vehicles already on the road. They must also yield to emergency vehicles – such as fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, and the like. If an officer is on the road directing traffic, his instructions take precedence over the traffic signals.

While it might seem rude when other drivers pull up to a yield sign before you do, they are actually following the law. It is better to be safe than sorry, and it will also help prevent accidents and road rage. This is also true if you come across a vehicle whose driver is slow to stop when they see the sign, as this is an indication of good driving behavior and safety.

Speed Limits

Posted speed limits are indicated on road signs reflecting the maximum legal rate at which vehicles may travel on that particular stretch of roadway. The federal government sets statutory speeds as part of motor vehicle laws, while city or county governments set speed limits on local roads and can vary from those established by the state.

Most states and cities conduct engineering speed studies to determine safe and reasonable speed limits for specific roadway segments. This includes evaluating the 85th percentile free flow operating speed, design speed of the road segment, and other factors. This method is generally referred to as the “engineering approach.”

Other methods for setting speed limits are also used, including the “expert system” methodology, which utilizes a computer program that uses knowledge and inference procedures to simulate the judgment and behavior of expert traffic engineers when determining an appropriate speed limit. An example of this is the FHWA-developed USLIMITS2 software.

Many drivers tend to overestimate the risk of speeding, causing them to drive much faster than the actual legal speed limit. As a result, many traffic crashes are caused by motorists exceeding the speed limit. The higher a driver’s speed, the more kinetic energy is dissipated in a crash, increasing the potential for severe injuries and fatalities. For this reason, many people request that highway jurisdictions lower speed limits to reduce vehicle speeds.

Passing Pedestrians

Several sections of the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC) deal with the interaction between vehicles and pedestrians. For example, if a pedestrian is crossing the road within a crosswalk or when traffic-control signals are not in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to that pedestrian, slowing down or stopping if need be. The same rules dictate that drivers must not overtake and pass a stopped vehicle that has stopped at a transit stop for the purpose of receiving or discharging passengers.

In addition, the UVC requires motorists to provide a minimum of four feet for passing people on foot, bicycles, scooters, wheelchairs or other legally permitted ways of travel other than motorized vehicles. This is important on single-lane roads, especially when they are narrow and have a limited shoulder. In addition, it is illegal to use the paved shoulder of a highway as a passing lane unless there is no other reasonable way of getting through the area safely.

The best way to get motorists to yield to pedestrians is through targeted enforcement. This method has proven to significantly increase motorist yielding to pedestrians and improve their driving habits over time. Drivers must also be aware of the need to yield to pedestrians in mid-block crosswalks and other intersections with no traffic-control signals. Finally, in roundabouts, drivers must yield to traffic entering the circle from the right if it is safe to do so.