Locked or not, don’t leave your car running to de-ice the windshield

The in basket: When I was going to Olympic College back in the 1960s, a friend who drove would start his car and go back in the house on frosty mornings until the windows were clear. He managed not to get the car stolen.

PEMCO Insurance has been polling Northwest residents about things, and doing what my friend did way back then was a recent subject.

“About half (53 percent) of respondents who live in Eastern Washington deal with frost, ice or snow on their windshield each day in colder months,” a company news release said. “In the moderate temperatures on the west side of the state, about two-thirds (60 percent) of drivers tend to an icy windshield at least once per week.

“But icy windshields present more than a tedious winter task – they also can be invitations to car thieves looking for unattended, idling cars left running by drivers waiting for them to warm up,” the company said.

“According to PEMCO’s poll, about two-thirds of respondents (63 percent) who wake up to icy windshields opt to crank their car’s heater before using a scraper to clear their windshield of ice or frost or snow.

“You’ve probably seen ‘puffers’ – people who start their cars and then go back inside while the heater warms up, and that’s against the law in many areas,” the company said. “Even if you leave your car unattended for just a few minutes, that’s plenty of time for a thief to break in and drive away,” said Jon Osterberg, PEMCO Insurance spokesperson.

“In fact, Washington state law requires drivers to stop their car’s engine, lock the ignition, remove the keys and set the brake before leaving a vehicle unattended.

“Car theft isn’t the only risk posed by frosty windshields,” it continued. “The poll finds that about a quarter (24 percent) of residents in Portland and slightly fewer in Washington (17 percent) don’t always finish scraping their windshields clear of ice or snow. What’s more, an equal number are unaware that a frosty windshield could get them pulled over.”

I asked if locking your car with a second set of keys and leaving it running changed the picture. I also asked my State Patrol contact if fog or ice on the other windows can be cause for a citation.

The out basket: Not at all, Osterberg told me. It still would be illegal and professional car thieves aren’t deterred much by locked doors. Some professional thieves cruise neighborhoods looking for an unoccupied car running and would have the ability to enter the car quickly and steal it, locked or not, he said.

State Trooper Russ Winger had this to say about my second question:

“You need to be able see out of the vehicle in order to drive safely. That would include front, rear and side windows. It would be a basic violation of driving with due care. It is just plain dangerous to yourself and other motorists to drive with obscured visibility.
“You can be stopped for this and potentially issued a citation.
“Taking a few minutes to scrape ice, snow or defrost the windows so you can see properly is not to much to expect from any motorist,” Russ said. “If a driver causes an accident due to this lack of common sense and basic effort, one could make a case for a negligent driving citation.

6 thoughts on “Locked or not, don’t leave your car running to de-ice the windshield

  1. Late model cars equipped with remote start cannot be driven until someone with the remote on their person is seated inside the vehicle AND presses the ‘Start’ button. The car can be started remotely, but only after locking it with the remote immediately prior. Until a person with the remote presses the “Start” button, the car’s steering wheel will not move, and the car cannot be put into gear. This always was a stupid nanny-state law, that makes even less sense with modern technology.

  2. I wonder then about auto-starters. I have been considering getting one for my vehicle as I do not have garage space. All you have to do is push a button to start your vehicle but since the key is not in the ignition the vehicle cannot be put into gear until one does put the key in. The ads I have hear for such a device installed say it costs about $200. Seems like a small cost for a whole lot of convenience on a cold and snowy day.

  3. You might want to actually publish the section of the RCW’s that you are talking about and referencing by hearsay…

    RCW 46.61.600
    Unattended motor vehicle.

    (1) 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.

    (2) The most recent driver of a motor vehicle which the driver has left standing unattended, who learns that the vehicle has become set in motion and has struck another vehicle or property, or has caused injury to any person, shall comply with the requirements of:

    (a) RCW 46.52.010 if his or her vehicle strikes an unattended vehicle or property adjacent to a public highway; or

    (b) RCW 46.52.020 if his or her vehicle causes damage to an attended vehicle or other property or injury to any person.

    (3) Any person failing to comply with subsection (2)(b) of this section shall be subject to the sanctions set forth in RCW 46.52.020.


    .020 is fairly convoluted language, but the penalty for unattended running vehicle looks to be a revocation of your driver’s license? Not sure that if it is on your private property you even have to worry about that, unless it jumps into gear and leaves your property under its own volition.

    The issue with your insurance company is a completely different discussion of course.

  4. It seems strange that remote start is allowed for sale unless there are some exemptions to the law. I bought a new car and it had remote start options, so did I buy something that is illegal to use?

  5. I do agree that one way to keep a windshield well-maintained during winter is to scrape ice and snow off of it. Since you said that this will help drivers avoid getting a citation, I believe that they should also have it checked at a repair service. Doing this will make sure that they have a clear, durable field of vision to see what lies ahead past the white snow.

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