Most drivers today are only concerned with the Rules of the Road in two instances: (1) when they are studying for their driver’s license or permit and (2) when they are in a car wreck. If you are like most drivers, after you received your license, you flushed all that Rules of the Road information out of your brain. You “know how to drive” and probably remember a few pointers from the person who taught you how to drive but most likely that’s about the extent of your knowledge. Don’t worry though, you aren’t alone. Regardless of profession (except maybe law enforcement), we tend to forget about the Rules of the Road. We think we know what we need to. However, many drivers would be surprised to learn that what they thought were rules aren’t actually rules at all. They would also be surprised to know that there are several rules they violate every day that they don’t even know exist. This monthly blog series is aimed to help with that problem. Each month we will highlight a few of the Rules of the Road and related laws to make our followers more informed and hopefully avoid tickets, car wrecks, and even mere embarrassment.
In Tennessee, the Rules of the Road are found in statutes. Specifically, Title 55, Chapter 8 of the Tennessee Code Annotated contains the Rules of the Road for Tennessee roads. The remainder of Title 55 contains other important laws governing the operation of motor vehicles on Tennessee’s roads. Regardless of a driver’s home state or the state issuing his or her driver’s license, the Rules of the Road apply to all drivers on Tennessee roads, from our busy Interstate Highways to our barely paved rural back roads.
This month, we will focus on the following three Rules of the Road: (1) the requirement to exercise due care, (2) brake light/tail light requirements, and (3) evidence of compliance with the financial responsibility law.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 55-8-136(a) provides the rule concerning due care in regards to pedestrians. Section 55-8-136(b), which is more relevant for car wrecks, provides the general rule for due care:
Notwithstanding any speed limit or zone in effect at the time, or right-of-way rules that may be applicable, every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care by operating the vehicle at a safe speed, by maintaining a safe lookout, by keeping the vehicle under proper control and by devoting full time and attention to operating the vehicle, under the existing circumstances as necessary in order to be able to see and to avoid endangering life, limb or property and to see and avoid colliding with any other vehicle or person, or any road sign, guard rail or any fixed object either legally using or legally parked or legally placed, upon any roadway, within or beside the roadway right-of-way including, but not limited to, any adjacent sidewalk, bicycle lane, shoulder or berm.
This rule is very broad and covers essentially all aspects of vehicle operation. To use phrasing besides “due care,” this rule can be summed up as “pay attention.” It is important to note that the rule is independent of the posted speed limit or whether the driver may have the right of way. A driver could fail to exercise due care by driving too fast even though he or she may be driving at or even below the posted speed limit. For example, the posted speed limit may be 65 MPH, but if it is pouring rain due care may require driving at a speed much lower than 65 MPH. If a driver were to cause a motor vehicle accident in such a situation, that driver could be considered negligent for failing to exercise due care. Additionally, even if the driver does not cause a motor vehicle accident, the driver could still be cited by a law enforcement officer for failing to exercise due care. As subsection (c) provides, “A violation of this section is a Class C misdemeanor.”
Brake Light and Tail Light Requirements
Tennessee Code Annotated § 55-9-402(b) covers brake light and tail light requirements for motor vehicles operated on Tennessee roads. The pertinent part of subsection (b) provides
Every motor vehicle shall be equipped with two (2) red tail lamps and two (2) red stoplights on the rear of the vehicle, and one (1) tail lamp and one (1) stoplight shall be on each side, except that passenger cars manufactured or assembled prior to January 1, 1939, trucks manufactured or assembled prior to January 1, 1968, and motorcycles and motor-driven cycles shall have at least one (1) red tail lamp and one (1) red stoplight. No non-emergency vehicle shall operate or install emergency flashing light systems such as strobe, wig-wag, or other flashing lights in tail light lamp, stoplight area, or factory installed emergency flasher and backup light area; provided, however, that the foregoing prohibition shall not apply to the utilization of a continuously flashing light system. For the purposes of this part, “continuously flashing light system” means a brake light system in which the brake lamp pulses rapidly for no more than five (5) seconds when the brake is applied, and then converts to a continuous light as a normal brake lamp until the time that the brake is released.
The key number for brake lights and tail lights is 2. The key location is “each side.” Note that the statute says nothing about the center bar that most vehicles typically have in the rear window or at the top of the trunk or truck cab. Many drivers assume that as long as the center light and one of the side lights are functioning their lights are legal. This is not true. The statute requires one on each side, and subsection (c) requires that each lamp and stoplight required in this section be in good condition and operational. Like the due care statute above, subsection (g) of this statute provides, “A violation of this section is a Class C misdemeanor.” Further, in addition to making a driver subject to a citation, failing to meet the brake light and tail light requirements could lead to civil liability if a motor vehicle accident results from the improper lighting.
Evidence of Compliance with Tennessee’s Financial Responsibility Law
Tennessee Code Annotated § 55-12-139 covers the methods by which drivers can prove compliance with Tennessee’s financial responsibility law. This statute also covers when a driver may have to provide this evidence. Subsection (b) provides
At the time the driver of a motor vehicle is charged with any violation under chapters 8 and 10, parts 1-5, and chapter 50 of this title; any other local ordinance regulating traffic; or at the time of an accident for which notice is required under § 55-10-106, the officer shall request evidence of financial responsibility as required by this section. In case of an accident for which notice is required under § 55-10-106, the officer shall request evidence of financial responsibility from all drivers involved in the accident, without regard to apparent or actual fault. For the purposes of this section, “financial responsibility” means:
(1) Documentation, such as the declaration page of an insurance policy, an insurance binder, or an insurance card from an insurance company authorized to do business in Tennessee, whether in paper or electronic format, stating that a policy of insurance meeting the requirements of this chapter, has been issued;
(2) A certificate, valid for one (1) year, issued by the commissioner of safety, stating that a cash deposit or bond in the amount required by this chapter, has been paid or filed with the commissioner, or has qualified as a self-insurer under § 55-12-111; or
(3) The motor vehicle being operated at the time of the violation was owned by a carrier subject to the jurisdiction of the department of safety or the interstate commerce commission, or was owned by the United States, this state or any political subdivision thereof, and that such motor vehicle was being operated with the owner’s consent.
Note that the officer “shall” request the evidence. Officers are not trying to be mean in requesting this documentation, they are merely doing their job. The second and third types of proof are not very common. Most drivers will have (or should have) some version of the first proof listed. Virtually all auto insurers provide their insureds with some type of card or piece of paper to keep in the insureds’ vehicles stating that the insurance meets Tennessee’s insurance requirements. Because the statute also allows drivers to show the proof in electronic format, drivers with smartphones have little excuse for violating this provision. As a side note and to calm any fears of drivers concerned with handing their smartphone to a law enforcement officer, subsection (h) of the statute provides, “If a person displays the evidence in an electronic format pursuant to this section, the person is not consenting for law enforcement to access any other contents of the electronic device.” Again, like the statutes above, failure to provide evidence of financial responsibility is a Class C misdemeanor. While not having proof of financial responsibility may not lead to any civil liability in the case of a motor vehicle accident, not complying with the financial responsibility law at all is a different story. However, that is a discussion for another day.
By Erik Fuqua