Driver's Licenses and Traffic Safety Laws

Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
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Driver's Licenses and Traffic Safety Laws

This document tells you the following:

  • What is a driver's license and what is it for?
  • How do you get a driver's license?
  • What kinds of driver's licenses are there?
  • What are the teen driver's licensing laws and restrictions in Georgia?
  • What are the rules that regulate vehicles and traffic in Georgia?
  • When can a driver's license be taken away?
  • What is Georgia's point system for traffic violations?
  • Who makes the traffic laws?

Before you may legally operate a motor vehicle on Georgia's public highways, you must have a valid driver's license. A driver's license carries with it great responsibility. More Americans die as a result of motor vehicle accidents than any other cause. Thousands more are permanently disabled. An auto is a means of transportation. It can be a source of pleasure-but it can also be deadly. Therefore many rules and regulations govern the use of motor vehicles. This chapter looks at some of these rules and regulations. It also discusses auto insurance, what happens when there is an accident, and traffic court.


1. Getting a License

Case of the New Driver

Tina and her older brother, Walter, are waiting in line at the Georgia State Patrol office. They and their parents have recently moved to Georgia from New York. Tina, who just turned 17, has discovered that Georgia requires that she be 18 before she can be fully licensed to drive. In the meantime, she is applying for the Class D temporary license. Walter drove her to the patrol office, but she'll get to drive on the way home.

Each state sets its own requirements regarding the licensing of drivers, but requirements tend to be similar among states. A motor vehicle license must be carried at all times when operating a vehicle. Failure to drive without carrying a valid license is a misdemeanor in Georgia and can result in a fine. Driving a vehicle is a privilege and not a right. Accordingly, the government has the right to take away that privilege if you disobey the laws.

In Georgia, licenses are classified according to the type of vehicle to be operated. The Class C driver's license is the one that most people use. Essentially, a Class C license entitles a driver to operate a car or a pickup truck. An applicant must be at least 18 years old to obtain a Class C license. There are other classes of licenses that permit drivers to operate motorcycles, buses, or larger trucks.

Any Georgia resident who is at least 15 years old may apply for an instruction (or learner's) permit to drive a Class C vehicle (that is, a car or pickup truck). The applicant for an instruction permit must pass the same exams that all other driver's license applicants must pass, except for the driving test. The instruction permit is valid for two years, and it permits the holder to drive only when accompanied by a person who is at least 21 years old and holds a valid Class C driver's license.

Georgia recently changed some of the licensing requirements for teenagers. The Teenage and Adult Driver Responsibility Act, passed in 1999 and amended in 2001, created the Class D (or intermediate) license for drivers who are at least 16 years old. Unless a teenager has a valid license from another state when he or she becomes a resident of Georgia, he or she must complete an alcohol and drug awareness course. All driver's license applicants, including teenagers seeking a Class D license, must pass tests on their understanding of traffic-control devices, traffic laws, and safe driving practices in Georgia, in addition to an on-the-road driving test.

To be eligible for the Class D license, an applicant must be at least 16 years old, have had a valid instruction permit for the previous 12 months, and have not been convicted of certain driving violations in the 12 months prior to application. Some of these offenses are violation of DUI laws, hit-and-run, drag racing, eluding a police officer, and reckless driving. A Georgia teenager who has a valid Class D license may apply for the Class C driver's license at age 18 if he or she has not been convicted of any of those same driving violations in the 12 months prior to application. Applicants for a Class C license who already hold a Class D license are exempt from the on-the-road driving test.

The Class D license puts certain restrictions on drivers. A Class D license holder may not drive between the hours of 12:00 midnight and 6:00 a.m. Furthermore, a Class D license holder may not drive when there are more than three other passengers in the car who are younger than 21 years old and who are not members of the driver's immediate family. Finally, during the six-month period immediately following the issuance of a Class D license, the holder may not drive a car or truck when any other passenger in the vehicle is not a member of the driver's immediate family. A Class D license holder can be charged with a violation of these laws only in addition to being charged with any other traffic offense.

In order for a person under 18 years old to obtain a driver's license, he or she must be enrolled in school and satisfy certain attendance requirements or be enrolled in a state-certified home schooling program. Otherwise, it must be proved that the applicant received a high school diploma, a general educational development (GED) equivalency diploma, a special diploma, or a certificate of high school completion or that there is parental permission to withdraw from school or that the applicant has left high school and enrolled in college. Applicants who are enrolled in high school cannot obtain a driver's license if they have been suspended for threatening a teacher or other school personnel or for possession or sale of drugs or alcohol on school property or possession or use of a weapon on school property.

An applicant for a Class D license must also have completed an approved driver education course and must have at least 20 hours of driving experience supervised by someone at least 21 years old, including at least six hours at night. Applicants who have not completed a driver education course must have at least 40 hours of supervised driving experience.

Licenses to operate motor vehicles are required in most foreign countries and all states. Requirements vary from state to state. For example, some states require driving tests to be performed in traffic. In Georgia, if a road test is required, it may be taken on a driving course. The age of licensing also varies. As already discussed, in Georgia, the minimum age for a learner's permit is 15; for an intermediate license, 16; and for an unrestricted license, 18. Although requirements might differ from state to state, a Georgia license is valid in all other states, but a learner's permit may not be. A Georgia license is valid in some foreign countries but not in others.

At some time, you might move from Georgia to live in another state or country. You will then have to get a driver's license in that jurisdiction. Similarly, someone moving to Georgia from another state or country must get a Georgia driver's license. In Georgia, the license must be obtained within 30 days after moving to the state. An out-of-state student (who pays nonresident tuition) does not have to obtain a Georgia driver's license, however. The student may drive in Georgia with a valid license from his or her home state.

Regulating Vehicles and Traffic

Case of the New Driver, continued
With her intermediate driver's license tucked in her wallet, Tina turned on the ignition of the family's car. Walter sat beside her. Halfway home, Tina stopped for a red light. After a few seconds, Walter said impatiently, "You can turn. Don't you know the rules? Don't you know that you can turn right on red if it's clear?" "There's a lot to remember," Tina said, embarrassed.

Once you have a license, you may operate motor vehicles on the public roads. However, more is required than getting behind the wheel and turning the key. Every driver must obey the laws governing the operation of motor vehicles.

The purpose of traffic laws is to provide rules that will allow the safe operation of motor vehicles on streets and highways. The basic goal is to prevent more than one vehicle from occupying the same space at the same time. Several types of laws apply to operating motor vehicles. First, as has been discussed, there are rules and regulations that govern the licensing of vehicle operators. Second, there are regulations that require the registering and licensing of the vehicles themselves. Some states have laws requiring vehicles to be inspected every year by qualified mechanics.

In Georgia, in counties with populations greater than 200,000, cars and light trucks have to be inspected for emissions control. This requirement is part of a federal program to reduce air pollution. The required annual inspection includes air pumps, filters, catalytic converters, and the level of exhaust emissions.

Various kinds of laws concern vehicles. For example, a 1991 bill made it a misdemeanor to play a car stereo so loud it can be heard 100 feet away. Some people oppose this law. They say it limits their freedom of speech. Still another Georgia law limits the tinting of motor vehicle windows. The law was passed to make it easier for police officers to see into vehicles. It was opposed by owners who had to replace tinted windows at their own expense. Do you think that is fair?

There are also laws that regulate the actual manner of operating motor vehicles. In this state, these laws are collectively called the Uniform Rules of the Road. They are found in Title 40 of the Georgia Code. Among them are laws passed to increase the safety of drivers and passengers. In 1988, Georgia enacted a law requiring the occupant of each front seat of a passenger vehicle to wear a seat belt. A driver can be fined for failure to wear a seat belt. Georgia also has a law requiring children under four years old to be restrained in an approved car seat when riding in a motor vehicle.

Special safety regulations apply to motorcycles. Georgia law requires every motorcycle driver and passenger to wear some sort of footwear. They must also wear a safety helmet with an eye shield. Although the safety values of these requirements are generally accepted, these laws have been controversial. The issue is, should the decision to wear a helmet or seat belt be left to the individual? Or is the safety of individuals enough in the public interest for the government to require these safety precautions? What do you think?

Who Makes the Traffic Laws?

The basic rules of licensing, inspection, and operation of motor vehicles are made by state legislatures. Generally, these rules are adopted by city and county governments, and they allow city and country police officers to enforce state traffic laws. This system builds consistency into the way traffic laws are enforced across the state.

Local governments, however, may regulate speed limits on roads within their boundaries-except on interstate highways. This local control explains why one city may have a speed limit of 30 miles per hour (mph) on its streets and another city may have a 35 mph speed limit. Local governments also decide where to put traffic-regulating devices such as signs and lights.

The federal government also exerts some control, usually by setting requirements for funding. For example, to reduce gasoline usage after the petroleum shortage in the early 1970s, it required states to set a maximum speed limit of 55 mph or lose federal highway monies. A similar kind of pressure was exerted on states to change the legal drinking age to 21 years.

Effective July 1, 1996, speed limits were increased to 65 mph and 75 mph on certain highways. Which speed was allowed depended on the population in the area. Because there are now different speed limits on highways, you must pay special attention to posted signs.

State laws are not all alike, but states do try to make traffic signs and rules of the road uniform. This uniformity helps make travel from one state to another safe and easy. Among foreign countries, there are many differences in traffic regulations. For example, in England and Japan, people drive on the left-hand side of the road.
Penalties for traffic violations also differ in other countries. In many countries, the penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs are more severe than in the United States. In some countries, your auto may be impounded (or seized) if you commit a traffic violation.

When can a driver's license be taken away?

A driver's license will be suspended when the driver:

  • is convicted of a homicide while operating a vehicle
  • fraudluently applies for or uses a driver's license
  • races on the highways
  • attempts to flee by car from a police officer
  • commits a "hit-and-run" or leaves the scene of an accident
  • fails to pay for gasoline on two or more occasions
  • fails to appear in traffic court at the appointed time and date for any offense other than a parking violation
  • refuses to take a blood, breath, or chemical test to determine if he/she is driving under the influence of alcohol (The license will be automatically suspended but will be returned if the driver is found not guilty.)
  • accumulates 15 or more points (see list below) in 24 months, unless the driver takes a driver training class and reduces the number of points
  • operates a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • is convicted of certain drug offenses even if the dirver wasn't under the influence of drugs while driving
  • fails to comply with a court order mandating that he or she pay child support
  • is convicted of driving without insurance
  • is under 21 and is convicted of reckless driving (in which case, his or her license will be revoked).

* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Third Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2001). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase ator by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

Last Review and Update: Jul 30, 2004