Traffic laws are subject to either primary or secondary enforcement. This article discusses the difference between these offenses and provides examples of traffic violations that constitute primary offenses in some states and secondary offenses in other states.
A primary traffic offense is a violation for which a police officer can stop a driver and issue a citation. With a secondary offense, an officer can issue a citation only if there’s some other valid reason to stop the driver. In other words, the basis for stopping the motorist can’t be just the violation of a secondary offense. Rather, the officer can issue a citation for a secondary offense only if the stop was for a primary offense or some other legitimate reason like a DUI checkpoint.
Most traffic offenses are primary violations. For example, speeding, failing to stop at a red light or stop sign, and failing to signal are generally subject to primary enforcement. So, an officer who sees you run a red light or drive through a school zone at 90 miles per hour can lawfully pull you over and ticket you for the violation.
Some traffic offenses are subject to secondary enforcement. State laws vary but many jurisdictions allow only secondary enforcement for:
However, some types of secondary offenses can also be primary offenses in certain situations. For example, in some states, whether a seat belt violation is a primary or secondary offense depends on the age of the person who’s not wearing a seat belt. If the person not wearing a seat belt is younger than 18, it’s a primary violation. Otherwise, a seat belt violation is a secondary offense.