In our free and free-wheelin’ country, you’ve got the right to hit the road.
Even though the right to travel is not expressly enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, we know it’s there. As the Supreme Court affirms, travel is “a right broadly assertable against private interference as well as governmental action,” and is “a virtually unconditional personal right, guaranteed by the Constitution to us all.”
And that’s what it feels like from behind the wheel of your favorite ride. More or less. A right does not mean rule-free or unregulated. America’s car culture and driving obsession have kept legislatures across the land busy enacting bumper-to-bumper restrictions and requirements on motor vehicle safety.
Freedom, Within (Speed) Limits
With more than 250 million registered passenger vehicles zooming across U.S. roads, state laws cover distracted, impaired or aggressive driving, seat belts, sobriety checkpoints, speed limits, traffic cameras and much more. Start with a cruise through highway safety laws by state, from the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Your state’s motor vehicle statutes include tankfuls of information on driver and vehicle licensing, traffic laws, enforcement, passengers’ rights, insurance, gas taxes, accident reporting, and miles more.
Along with states, the U.S. Department of Transportation is in the driver’s seat with statutory authority to promulgate motor vehicle regulations relating to airbags to brakes to tires, and lots in between.
When you unleash your need for speed, beware that most roads are not the infamous 40-mile stretch of Texas road between Austin and San Antonio that boasts the fastest speed limit in the nation: clock in at 85 mph and you’re still legal.
Speed limits did not exist until 1901. How speedy could a Ford Model T go, really? (Answer: about 30 mph, or maybe 45 mph on a very good day.) In the beginning, states regulated speed, but in response to the 1973 oil crisis, Congress hit the national brakes with a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit — a flagrantly disregarded law if ever there was one. When the feds repealed the unloved limit in 1995, many states raced to raise the speed bar on urban and rural roads. Today, most states enforce speed limits of 70 mph and higher on at least some of their byways. Know the law before a traffic cop catches you breaking it. From the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, take a pit stop for state speed limits on different types of roads.
Not everyone is getting the message that texting behind the wheel is nothing to LOL about, and that includes dialing, reading and listening to texts, and looking or reaching for a cell phone or device. So stop texting and drive (ST&D). Then go home and click on a summary of state bans on texting and cell phone use while driving, from Distraction.gov.
Drive sober or fork over the keys, no arguments, no excuses. Take an unimpaired look at Rocket Lawyer’s trunk of pointers to state penalties for driving under the influence. As @NHTSAgov tweets, “If there’s alcohol in your system, you need a #designateddriver. #BuzzedDriving is #DrunkDriving, period.”
For many, the quest for wind-blown adventure means tearing up the blacktop in a pimped out thrill machine. Like driving, motorcycling comes with a garage full of rules and regulations, covering everything from helmets to taillights, and the rules vary from state to state: eye protection, handlebars, speakers, lane splitting, sound, mirrors, mufflers, passenger age, footrests, seats, radar detectors—you name it, Easy Rider, a law covers it. Shift into the legal fast lane by getting a handle on state motorcycle laws, via the American Motorcyclist Association.
Drag racing on public streets may look super badass and cool in blockbuster movies and online videos, but it’s very illegal. It’s also potentially deadly, and will trash your tricked out motion machine faster than a green light turns red. Here’s to the street racer who painted “Organ donor” on his ride; and here’s how to donate.
Warning: Oversized Vehicles
Motor homes, RV’s and all styles of campers mean footloose freedom without sacrificing your lounge chair. Get comfy with the RV laws in your state and the states you’re tooling through.
Wheels don’t turn themselves. The nation’s 57 million cyclists prefer to travel down their piece of road sans engine, green and on their own steam. The League of American Bicyclists spins a map of state laws affecting biking and bike riders. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute reminds everyone safety when peddling is smart and it’s the law: wear a helmet and make sure your children do, especially in the 22 states with more than 200 local ordinances that mandate helmets for kids on bikes.
Cycling is hot on urban streets as well as rural paths. Out of a nation of 315 million, 82 percent live in metropolitan areas, and these lucky movers and shakers can always grab a city bus, train or taxi to get around. But sometimes a spinning class at the gym after work is not enough. This spring the most populous U.S. city, that’s right, New York, launched a shiny new bike-share program—the largest in the country. If you’re visiting the Big Apple, here are the rules and regulations for a NYC city bike trek.
Skateboarding is not just for cool kids and street punks. It’s a legitimate form of transportation. Rules are local. Some towns enact ordinances against skating, over the objection of skaters, fans and even some skate moms. Learn your location’s rules before practicing your 360s, ollies, 360 pop shuv-its, boardslides and laser flips. Obey traffic laws, avoid damage to property and ride safely.
Similarly, here are some not too tricky state and local laws on rollerskating, aka inline skating aka rollerblading.
Watch Out for the Little Guys
If you are driving, keep a lookout for “vulnerable road users,” which—along with cyclists, skateboarders, rollerskaters, and motorcyclists—include tractor drivers, horse-drawn carriages, tractors, and people in motorized wheelchairs.
Maybe for you, getting behind the wheel is overrated. It’s great to lean back, relax and play Reckless Racing while you leave the driving to someone else. An app from the DOT helps you pick a safe bus company. And if rail travel is your thing, review Amtrak’s baggage and passenger ID policies and chill out on the train playing Trainz Driver (Android, iOS).
So if you’re stuck spinning your wheels, remember: you don’t need a lawyer in your passenger seat to have a great ride. At Rocket Lawyer, safe and legal is how we roll. Hit the road, and give us a honk or wave as you cruise by.