Did you know leaving your car running while unattended is illegal?

Photo courtesy of: acprocold.com

Photo courtesy of: acprocold.com

By: Sarah Weikart, Staff Writer

Yep, you read that right.

As the winter weather shows no signs of lightening up any time soon, many of us try to get a step ahead of Old Man Winter and warm up our cars before heading out for the day. When cold weather approaches, many individuals mistakenly leave their cars running unattended in an effort to warm up their vehicles before facing the storm; however, we may want to rethink this plan.

In Pennsylvania, as well as many other states such as Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, and South Carolina, it is illegal to leave your car running while it is unattended.  The purpose of the law is so that vehicle owners do not become victims. “Victims to what?” you may be asking… running unattended cars are prime targets for thieves! When falling prey to the simple temptation of leaving our cars running and unattended, we must remember that car thefts of this kind are easily preventable crimes.

Thieves use the blistering cold weather to their advantage by looking for puffs of warm exhaust pouring from car tailpipes, and easily snatching the idling cars. [1] Whether you are warming up your car before starting your day, quickly paying for your gas at the station, or running into Starbucks for a quick coffee to warm up, you are at risk of having your vehicle stolen. More than 700,000 vehicles are stolen in the United States each year, and up to half of the thefts can be blamed on driver error. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), this includes leaving your vehicle’s doors unlocked while the keys are in the car.  It has been reported that only about half of these vehicles are recovered. [7]

Many of these anti-theft laws were put into place while cars were still being manufactured without automatic car starters. This was due to the fact that thieves could access the car and actually drive it away without much hassle. However, the laws are a little fuzzy in regards to the newer “auto start” technology currently being installed in vehicles. This technology is specifically designed for the comfort of the drivers and passengers, though it is still possible to get a ticket in some states where running, unattended vehicles are forbidden. [3] Thus, in the unfortunate circumstance that your car does not have a fully functioning remote car starter, or the law in your state has not recognized modern technology, you may see greater consequences of having the “auto start” technology.

If you are caught leaving your car running and unattended in Pennsylvania, you are guilty of a summary offense and shall, upon conviction, be sentenced to pay a fine of $5 plus court costs. [5] Additionally, the fine in Ohio is $150, and West Virginia puts the first-offense fine at $100 and the second at $500. However, Arizona has a time limit allowing one to leave a vehicle unattended and running for five minutes or less. [2] Last year in New York, a spike in car thefts prompted the NYPD to get tough with those who make it easy for car thieves to strike. In extreme instances, police have even opened unattended cars, took the keys out, locked the car, and left a note instructing the owner to pick the keys up at the local precinct. [4]

Although summary offenses and tickets do not seem like a big deal in the long run, if your car is stolen, there can be civil and sometimes even criminal liability for the reckless act of leaving a vehicle unattended while running. [2] Furthermore, in the most serious instances, criminal cases can involve children that are often times left in the vehicle to stay warm while their parents rush into a store quickly to get something. 19 states in the U.S. have laws that specifically make it illegal to leave a child unattended in a vehicle, with the penalties ranging from a summary offense to manslaughter in the second degree. [8]

When focusing on the civil liability aspects, some Insurance providers will deny coverage for a vehicle stolen due to the lack of reasonable care taken by the owner of the vehicle. [6] Additionally, if an individual is injured or property damage occurs as a result of an unauthorized individual operating a vehicle simply because it was left running, may have a negligence claim against the owner of the vehicle (or the person who left it running unattended). [2] In some cases this could even be considered gross negligence and could result in greater liability and even punitive damages. This is because a judge or jury could determine that a foreseeable outcome to your actions (i.e. leaving your car unlocked, or worse running, with the keys in it unattended in a public area) was that a person would steal your vehicle and caused damage to others.

So before deciding to put those key in the ignition, turn on the defrosters and heat, and run back into the house to finish getting ready, just remember, it’s better to have a cold car than no car.

[1] http://www.today.com/news/cold-weather-crime-wave-thieves-target-cars-warming-driveways-2D80482339

[2] http://www.hg.org/article.asp?id=31777

[3] http://www.wnd.com/2014/01/cold-shock-warming-up-your-car-illegal/#!

[4] http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/02/02/nypd-cracks-down-on-drivers-who-leave-cars-running-unattended/

[5] http://www.dmv.state.pa.us/pdotforms/vehicle_code/chapter37.pdf

[6] http://www.autoblog.com/photos/insurance-does-not-cover/#image-2

[7] http://www.carinsurance.com/Articles/idling-car-tickets.aspx

[8] http://www.kidsandcars.org/state-laws.html

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