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Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS)

Traffic Control & Safety Regulations

Reference Number: MTAS-590
Reviewed Date: 04/03/2023

Traffic-control Lights
The design of traffic lights is established by state law. Green means go, yellow means caution, and red means stop. All lights must have a uniform arrangement of colored lenses. In vertical lights, red lenses must be above yellow and green lenses. In horizontal lights, red lenses must be to the left of yellow and green. Yellow lenses must be between red and green lenses. Yellow lights must show for at least three seconds, and a city is responsible for setting timers on city-owned lights to comply with this requirement. Right turns during red lights are permitted unless a "NO TURNS ON RED" sign is posted by the city. After a full stop, a left turn may be made during a red light onto a one-way street where traffic moves to the left if a sign granting permission is in place. Motorcycle operators may proceed through an intersection red light after stopping and ascertaining that this can be done safely if the light is controlled by a vehicle detection device that is not activated because of the size of the motorcycle. T.C.A. § 55-8-110.

Traffic-control Signs
Municipalities must comply with the Manual on Uniform Traffic-Control Devices for Streets and Highways, which contains requirements for the design and location of signs, signals, and markings. The manual also spells out rules for posting traffic regulations on or along all streets and highways. T.C.A. § 54-5-108.

To indicate ownership, any local government agency may stamp, etch, or otherwise permanently mark the backs of signs, signals, etc., with letters between one-quarter and three-quarters of an inch high. T.C.A. § 55-8-184.

Pedestrian Traffic
Cities may by ordinance require pedestrians to comply with traffic control devices and prohibit crossing a business district street or a designated highway except at crosswalks. T.C.A. § 55-8-133.

Child and Passenger Safety Restraints – Motor Vehicles
T.C.A. § 55-9-602 sets out complicated requirements based upon age, weight, and height for persons transporting children in motor vehicles to follow in restraining them. The statute creates an exception for children unable to be transported in a conventional restraint. Municipalities are expressly authorized to adopt by ordinance the provisions of T.C.A. § 55-9-602.

T.C.A. § 55-9-603 provides that no person shall operate a motor vehicle in Tennessee unless that person and all passengers four years of age or older are restrained by a safety belt at all times when the vehicle is in forward motion. There are exemptions for certain types of vehicles and vehicles traveling at a top speed of 15 mph. This statute provides that it applies only to the operator and all passengers occupying the front seat of a passenger motor vehicle. However, T.C.A. § 55-9-602 apparently supersedes T.C.A. § 55-9-603 with respect to children through age 15. A violation of T.C.A. § 55-9-602 is a Class C misdemeanor, but offenders may, in lieu of a court appearance, pay a fine of $10 for the first offense. If the vehicle operator or passenger is between the ages of 9 and 15, inclusive, the fine in lieu of a court appearance is $50. Clerks’ fees, court costs and litigation taxes also are prohibited for convictions for violations involving children ages 9 through 17.

A violation of T.C.A. § 55-9-603 also is a Class C misdemeanor. A person charged with a violation may, instead of appearing in court, submit a fine of $30 for the first violation and $55 for second and subsequent violations.

Law enforcement officers observing a violation of T.C.A. § 55-9-603 should issue a citation but not arrest a person solely for a violation of this law.

Helmets for Minors on Off-road Vehicles
It is a Class C misdemeanor for a parent or guardian of a minor to allow the minor to ride on an ATV, dune buggy, snowmobile, or dirt bike without a helmet in most circumstances. A law enforcement officer witnessing a violation must obtain the name and address of the parents/guardians and issue a mail citation, or, if the parent/guardian is operating the vehicle, the citation must be issued directly. Municipalities may adopt the statute by reference as an ordinance violation. T.C.A. §§ 55-52-201, 202.

Railroad Crossings Protection
T.C.A. § 55-8-146 provides that municipalities may erect stop signs at dangerous railroad crossings with the approval of the state Department of Transportation. It was also held by the Tennessee Supreme Court in Southern Railway Co. v. Knoxville, 223 Tenn. 90, 442 S.W.2d 619 (1968), that a general grant of police power empowers a municipality to require by ordinance a railroad to pay for and install crossing gates or signals if they are reasonably required to protect motorists. However, T.C.A. § 65-11-113 authorizes the state, at the expense of the railroad, the state, and the municipality, to require railroads to install certain markings and signals at an unmarked crossing where there has been a fatality and where other conditions outlined in that statute exist. The extent to which those statutes and that case may conflict is not clear.