Automobile Law

Generally, an automobile is a self-propelled vehicle used for transporting passengers, which does not run upon fixed rails or tracks.  An automobile carries its own engine or motor.  Pursuant to 15 USCS § 1231 (c), the term “automobile” includes any passenger car or station wagon.

Accordingly, when used in a general sense, the term automobile embraces within it all kinds of motor vehicles, except motorcycles, designed for use on highways and streets for the conveyance of either persons or property.  However, when used in its particular sense, the term automobile includes such motor vehicles, other than motorcycles, as are intended for use on highways and streets for the carriage of persons only[i].

The federal government, through acts of Congress, regulates and controls the operation of automobiles.  Examples of some federal regulations are:

  • The Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which aims at reducing traffic accidents and deaths and injuries from traffic accidents[ii];
  • The Highway Safety Act, which establishes various programs and improvements, including alcohol-impaired driving countermeasures[iii];
  • The National Driver Registry Act, which establishes a central national clearinghouse for information on drivers; and
  • The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System which establishes a national clearinghouse of information on motor vehicle titles.


Further, states generally, under their police power can control the operation of automobiles upon a public highway by enacting reasonable regulations that govern the conduct of the owners and drivers of vehicles operated thereon[iv].  In Berberian v. Lussier, 87 R.I. 226 (R.I. 1958), the court observed that “the right to use the public highways for travel by motor vehicles is one which properly can be regulated by the legislature in the valid exercise of the police power of the state.  Financial responsibility statutes have been held to constitute a reasonable regulation of the public highways and a proper measure for protecting the public safety.”

Generally, statutes in many states prohibit the operation of a motor vehicle on a state’s roads or highways without registration.  These statutes also provide for certain penalties for failure to register.  For instance, pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 341.04, it is unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle on a highway unless the vehicle is either registered, or a complete application for registration accompanied by the required fee has been delivered or mailed to the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Likewise, a standard state automobile insurance policy must comply with the applicable statutes in effect in the state at the time of contracting.  The nature, validity, and interpretation of automobile insurance policies, like other contracts, are usually governed by the law of the place where the contract was made.  However, in some states, the state Commissioner of Insurance decides what the terms of a standard policy will include, and the Commissioner’s interpretation of the relevant statute, although not controlling, will be given consideration.

[i] Seaford v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 253 N.C. 719 (N.C. 1961).

[ii] 49 USCS § 30101.

[iii] 23 USCS § 401.

[iv] State v. Darrah, 446 S.W.2d 745 (Mo. 1969).

Inside Automobile Law