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According to this article, the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 46.61.600 prohibits people from starting their cars in Washington State if they're unoccupied. However, it's a common practice for people to turn on their cars before entering, so the vehicle will be warmed up upon use. Here is some of the text of the statute:

No person driving or in charge of a motor vehicle shall permit it to stand unattended without first stopping the engine, locking the ignition, removing the key and effectively setting the brake thereon and, when standing upon any perceptible grade, turning the front wheels to the curb or side of the highway.

Is it actually illegal in Washington State to start your car before entering?

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Dale M
    Nov 3, 2023 at 22:20

5 Answers 5

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Yes. This is illegal in Washington State (the link is from November 9, 2020).

The law means what it says, with one subtle caveat, which is that this law applies only on a public road, and not on your own private driveway. As explained at the link (emphasis added):

PASCO, WA - As colder temperatures move into the Pacific Northwest, if you decide to warm your car up, do not leave it unattended and running. Remember, that is against Washington law. Police officers want to remind drivers who leave their cars running and unattended could face fines or a bigger problem, car theft.

Sgt. Rigo Pruneda said Pasco Police said authorities have been very busy in the Tri-Cities responding to car break-ins. He said when the temperatures get below freezing overnight, people's wind-shields get icy and frosted over.

That's when drivers are tempted to start their car and let them warm up in the morning and go back inside to finish getting ready for work.

"What happens is people see it as an opportunity to take your vehicle, because it is insecure and it is running. So, we just want to remind everybody, if they are going to warm up the car. Please, do not leave it unattended. Stay with the vehicle," Sgt. Pruneda said.

In the state of Washington, it is against the law to leave your car running while it is unattended and you can receive a ticket.

While it is legal for drivers to warm their cars up on their own property, police recommend not doing that, because that provides thieves an opportunity to steal your car.

Also, for future reference, an unattended car that is running is colloquially called a "puffer".

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    Is there some legal definition of 'unattended'? It seems like being outside the car is fine as long as you can see it or maybe even your kid (who is a minor and doesn't have a drivers licence) can see it.
    – quarague
    Nov 3, 2023 at 1:33
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    @quarague> lawinsider defines it as “being at such a distance that the driver are unable to intervene to prevent interference with the vehicle or any goods in it”. And a quick search unveils many people getting citations for leaving an unattended vehicle running while they got at the ATM or picked up an order.
    – spectras
    Nov 3, 2023 at 4:36
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    @JeopardyTempest I am not so sure about intervening as unless you install some attachments you can control remotely (robot arms???), all you can do with a camera is helplessly watch... Nov 3, 2023 at 7:51
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    My Ford Ranger has remote start. The doors remain locked, and in fact I can't drive it until and unless I put the key into the ignition and turn it to run (in effect "starting" the vehicle, although all it does is make the truck usable). Using remote start, for me, does not make my truck any less secure than it was before I remotely started it.
    – CGCampbell
    Nov 3, 2023 at 10:04
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    Some states have laws that take remote start into account in those laws and exclude them because of the safety's built in. In this case it seems that Washington State doesn't have that exclusion. On the flip side there are some states that have anti idling laws that prohibit the act of remote starting to warm up vehicles.
    – Joe W
    Nov 3, 2023 at 16:40
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In Austria, it is explicitly forbidden for environmental reasons. § 102 Abs 4 KFG says:

Der Lenker darf mit dem von ihm gelenkten Kraftfahrzeug [...] nicht ungebührlichen Lärm, ferner nicht mehr Rauch, üblen Geruch, schädliche Luftverunreinigungen oder Treibhausgasemissionen verursachen, als bei ordnungsgemäßem Zustand und sachgemäßem Betrieb des Fahrzeuges unvermeidbar ist. [...] „Warmlaufenlassen“ des Motors stellt jedenfalls eine vermeidbare Luftverunreinigung dar. [...]

Translation:

The driver of a motor vehicle [...] may not cause undue noise, more smoke, foul smell, harmful air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions than is unavoidable for a well-operated vehicle in good condition. [...] "Warming up" the engine is, in any case, avoidable air pollution. [...]

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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – feetwet
    Nov 3, 2023 at 16:47
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The answer is, it depends on where you are parked.

The RCW you cited is clear on the requirements for leaving an unattended car running on public property.

However, on private property it is legal.

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  • Thank you for your answer! Does a neighborhood count as private property? Say I'm visiting a friend and not parked on a driveway but near the sidewalk, for example. Would the statute apply to me?
    – The Editor
    Nov 27, 2023 at 22:28
  • @TheEditor, parking along the roadway near a sidewalk would probably be considered public property. You would need to research property lines and public right of way rules for the area of interest to be sure. An example of private property I was referring to would be like right in your own driveway. Nov 27, 2023 at 22:43
  • I wonder if that means keeping my car on and unattended while next to a friend's driveway would be illegal. I'm glad it's legal for me to do it at home, when my car's on my own driveway. Are you saying it's likely illegal when parked near the sidewalk, or is that not a question you can answer? If not, can you point me in a good direction to find the answer? Thanks!
    – The Editor
    Nov 28, 2023 at 1:33
  • @TheEditor, most WA counties have interactive maps that show property lines and ownership, I would suggest you start there. Example: snohomishcountywa.gov/5414/Interactive-Map-SCOPI Nov 28, 2023 at 16:35
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Beyond state law, municipalities may have additional prohibitions against idling. This is done most frequently in larger cities for the prevention of unnecessary air pollution, but can also be done to prevent noise pollution, for health and safety reasons, or for aesthetic reasons.

Since you ask about Washington, it appears that at least Spokane has such a law. They define excessive idling as idling for more than 60 seconds (regardless of whether or not someone is in the vehicle). There are a variety of exceptions, but idling your car in your driveway to warm it up or cool it down would be prohibited.

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    How should one deal with the fact that many vehciles rely upon engine heat for the windshield defogger, and in some some vehicles and weather conditions it may be almost impossible to keep the windshield view unobstructed before the engine has warmed up?
    – supercat
    Nov 4, 2023 at 22:57
  • @supercat Carry a brush? Break the law? Carry de-icer? I can think of a few solutions.
    – David
    Nov 5, 2023 at 0:34
  • Would Spokane's law not apply to people's houses per se but to "the Central Business District Portion of the Nonattainment Area"? In other words, even in Spokane, you can warm up your car before leaving your house, right?
    – The Editor
    Nov 5, 2023 at 1:38
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    @David: The presence of someone who is breathing out water vapor will cause the inside of the windshield to fog continuously until the temperature of the air blowing out the vents rises enough to prevent such condensation. Perhaps in some places the meteorological conditions would never create a need to warm up the engine before being able to see out the windshield, but in other places such conditions aren't especially rare.
    – supercat
    Nov 5, 2023 at 2:45
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    @David: The intent of my question was whether idling in meteorological conditions which would preclude visibility until the engine warmed up would escape cateogorization as "unnecessary". Legislators may intend that people tolerate potential increased engine wear from cold oil, but foggy windows would impose a safety hazard.
    – supercat
    Nov 5, 2023 at 18:08
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Laws such as this are extremely common. They normally apply, as the Washington state law, only on public roadways and not on private property such as your driveway.

I recommend that if you ever do need to do this, as many people do on cold days, that you find your spare car key so that you can lock the car while it is warming up. That doesn't help the environmental aspect (pollution, wasting fuel) but it does take care of the safety aspect.

Which reminds me of the time that I had a dead battery.

I stopped at a major intersection on the way to a customer because there was a serious accident. The accident did not involve me, but I did stick around to give a report to police as a witness. And then I couldn't leave because my battery was dead! One of the policemen was nice enough to give me a jump start.

Then I drove a significant distance to my first customer of the day. I thought my battery problem was a one-off (e.g., lights left on so battery was weak but after driving would be charged up). No, it wouldn't start...again. My customer gave me a jump-start. When I got to the second customer (very close to the first customer as I had deliberately scheduled them for the same day), I left my car running in the parking lot while I went inside to fix a computer. That's something I would never normally do, but I had a spare key so I was able to lock the car, and that was better than an almost certain need for yet another jump start.

Then I drove back towards home, pulled up in front of my local service station and asked them where to leave the car before I turned it off. I went home (nearby) and they replaced the battery.

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  • I recommend that if you ever do need to do this, as many people do on cold days, that you find your spare car key so that you can lock the car while it is warming up. That doesn't help the environmental aspect (pollution, wasting fuel) but it does take care of the safety aspect. They haven't invented remote starters where you live? Nov 6, 2023 at 1:16
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    Pollution aspect, compared to what? The private jets the WEF travel in?
    – paulj
    Nov 9, 2023 at 18:47
  • Thanks for your answer! If, instead of parking on my driveway, I park on the sidewalk near a friend's house, would I be on public property (and thus not allowed to warm up my car with while it's unoccupied)?
    – The Editor
    Nov 28, 2023 at 1:24
  • Yes at least in some places. Nov 28, 2023 at 1:27

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