In no hurry to repair a broken piece of North Carolina’s traffic safety laws, a House committee debated and finally endorsed a bill Tuesday to require that every car and truck have two working brake lights.
It’s been four years since the law flunked inspection in the state Court of Appeals, which ruled in 2011 that North Carolina drivers are required to have only one brake light. The Senate ignored a House bill to change the law in 2013, but the House now seems ready to approve a similar measure that cleared the Senate unanimously in April.
This should be an easy fix, said Sen. Bill Cook, a Pasquotank County Republican who sponsored Senate Bill 90.
“All we’re doing is going from one light to two,” Cook told the House Transportation Committee. “Most folks think the law says two, but it doesn’t. It says one. That’s all we’re trying to do, clarify the law.”
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It wasn’t so simple for some committee members. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, a Haywood County Democrat, said he “grew up in the country,” where pickup trucks often had just one brake light that worked.
“Why do you think we need two?” Queen asked.
Rep. Michele Presnell, a Yancey County Republican, complained that truckers are ticketed when they add decorative lights to their trailers, and something burns out.
“Sometimes they go down the road and it looks like a Christmas tree, and if one of those bulbs goes out, they get a ticket,” Presnell said. Rep. Ken Waddell, a Columbus County Democrat, agreed with her.
Cook didn’t want to get sidetracked.
“All this bill is trying to address is a vehicle with brake lights. Instead of one, we want two,” Cook said. “I don’t know about 4,000 other lights – and I don’t think they’re germane, frankly, but God bless you.”
The single-bulb issue came to light in a 2009 Surry County drug trafficking case. A deputy found cocaine after he stopped a car with only one working brake light. The drug conviction was challenged on the grounds that the deputy had no legal justification for stopping the car.
With Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledging that North Carolina’s single-light requirement was a big surprise, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the drug conviction in 2014. The court concluded that the deputy had made a “reasonable” mistake about the brake light law.
But legal experts said police won’t have that excuse in the future, now that the Surry case has illuminated North Carolina’s law. Police and prosecutors have been prodding legislators for corrective action.
“I’ve taken a lot of jokes about this, and I think I’ve had it up to here,” Cook said. “We don’t want our police officers to have to put up with this.”
On a voice vote with no audible dissents, the committee approved the bill and sent it to the full House.