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New Jersey funeral processions must obey traffic laws

Many drivers will wait for a funeral procession to pass, even if the traffic signal changes. While this may be the common custom, it is not the law. And that ambiguity makes things dicey at intersections. Some drivers who are not in the procession might cross or turn when the light turns green, while mourners in the procession may assume they have the right-of-way.

A collision (especially a fatality) would only add to the heartbreak and stress of a funeral. The following explanation of New Jersey law and general funeral procession etiquette will hopefully avoid a crash or hard feelings.

What is the law regarding funeral processions in New Jersey? Who has the right-of-way?

The New Jersey statute on funeral processions (ยง 39:4-93) is very brief. It only says that if a procession takes longer than five minutes, it must be interrupted so waiting traffic can cross the intersection. On the surface, that sounds like funeral processions have the right-of-way. But in two separate accident cases (1978 and 1990), New Jersey courts found no statutory right for funeral procession mourners to drive through a red light. As a result, the courts have clarified:

  • The lead car in a funeral procession must obey traffic lights and stop signs.
  • Other cars in the procession must stop (or at least yield) if the light turns red.

You may have been part of a funeral procession in which all the funeral cars passed through the intersection even after the light turned red. It's a common practice, but it's not technically the law. In the event of a collision, a mourner could be held liable (and cited) for failing to yield to cross traffic. Yet the other driver could also be liable for plowing through a line of funeral mourners, even if they had a green light. A litigated traffic accident case might come down to the relative negligence of each party.

What is considered proper etiquette when encountering a funeral procession?

Drivers are often unsure what to do when they come upon a line of funeral cars. Because the law is ambiguous, the safe and courteous thing is to allow the procession to pass. If the procession does stop and you have the green light, proceed with caution.

Aside from the right-of-way issue, here are some general do's and don'ts:

  • Don't honk or make rude gestures. Imagine it's your family member who died.
  • Never cut into a funeral procession. Just don't.
  • Never pass a funeral procession on the right shoulder.
  • It's okay to pass a slow-moving procession in the left lane, but be respectful.
  • If traveling the opposite direction, you need not stop or pull over. In fact, it increases the chances of getting rear-ended.

Please drive cautiously

A bill introduced in the New Jersey Legislature in 2014 would have allowed funeral processions to continue without interruption as long as the lead car had a green light. The measure didn't pass, leaving a gray area - many people mistakenly believe that funeral mourners have the right-of-way.

Whether you are a member of the procession or encounter one, slow down, make eye contact and proceed carefully. Respect the dead -- and the living.

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