highways and motor vehicles

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The term “highways and motor vehicles” refers to the scope of a states’ traffic regulations. In general, a state’s traffic regulations are limited to public highways and motor vehicles, and do not apply to private roads and driveways. 

Public Highways

A state’s traffic regulations apply to all public roads, even those not colloquially known as “highways”, such as alleys, county roads, city streets, toll roads, and state and federal roads. The term public highway also includes non-overland travel, including bridges, tunnels and ferries, and to navigable waters that are open to the public, such as rivers and streams. 

Traffic regulations may also apply to privately owned roads that are accessible to the public. In City of New York v. Beam Bike Corp, the Supreme Court of New York found that the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law applied to privately owned property in cases where the public has a general right to of passage.

Private roads that are not open to the public, such as service roads, are not generally subject to highway and motor vehicle laws. For instance, in Kawalsingh v. Champion, the NY Supreme court found that the Vehicle and Traffic Law did not apply to an airport service road, as it was not accessible to the public. 

Motor Vehicles

The term “motor vehicles” broadly describes a self-propelled vehicle capable of transporting a person or property. However, the specific definition of what is considered a “motor vehicle” differs state by state. 

For example: 

  • Alabama defines the term “motor vehicle” very broadly, going so far as to consider a motorized wheelchair to be a “motor vehicle” in Pruitt v. Oliver
  • New York defines the term very narrowly, finding in Kawalsingh v. Champion that the term “motor vehicle” did not include vehicles that weren’t licensed to drive on public highways. 
  • Missouri defines “motor vehicle” broadly, similarly to Alabama, but recognizes express exceptions.
    • For instance, in McMillan v. Director of Revenue, the court found that the legislators had expressly chosen not to include motorized bicycles among motor vehicles. 

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]