In most states, traffic violations are broken up into two categories: "primary violations" and "secondary violations." These categories are generally based on the seriousness of the offense (primary being more serious than secondary). However, the main importance of these labels is what they mean for police enforcing traffic laws.
This article will explain how primary and secondary traffic offenses are different and how these differences impact your rights as a motorist.
Before we get into the specifics of which traffic offenses are primary and which are secondary, let's take a look at why the distinction matters.
In short, a primary—but not a secondary—violation gives police authority to stop a vehicle.
The purpose of the primary and secondary labels relates to an officer's authority to investigate each type of violation. In order for a police officer to lawfully initiate a traffic stop of a moving vehicle, the officer generally must have reasonable suspicion to believe the driver has violated the law in some way.
However, not all violations give police authority to stop a vehicle. For violations that are categorized as primary offenses, the officer can initiate a traffic stop based solely on that violation. But a secondary offense, on the other hand, doesn't authorize police to stop a vehicle. Basically, some states have decided that secondary offenses are so minor that they don't warrant the temporary detention that results from a traffic stop.
Secondary violations can only be investigated and charged if the driver was already stopped for a separate primary traffic violation. For example, an officer can issue a seatbelt ticket (which is usually a secondary violation) to a driver stopped for unlawful speeding (typically, a primary violation). But the officer can't stop a driver and issue a seatbelt citation if the driver committed no other traffic violations that are categorized as a primary offense.
Most traffic violations are primary offenses. Common primary violations include:
Most primary traffic offenses are charged as infractions and carry a fine of $50 to $200. However, a misdemeanor or felony that involves the operation of a motor vehicle will also be considered a primary offense.
Secondary traffic offenses are generally less serious than primary traffic violations. Common secondary violations include things like:
However, each state categorizes traffic offenses differently. So a violation that's a secondary offense in one state might be a primary violation in a different state.
Secondary offenses are normally infractions or civil offenses and carry fines that are usually less than $100.