Ownership Is It Illegal to Leave Your Car Running Unattended?
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The story of a Roseville, Michigan, manhas swept the internet. A few days ago, it was the top story on The Daily Mail, a place usually reserved for updates on bikini-clad starlets romping on exotic beaches. The outrage spurred by the man's citation blurred some of the legal intricacies of the story, however. While it is technically illegal to leave your car running in some places in Michigan, it is not illegal everywhere. And this probably holds true elsewhere.
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A close look at the ticket issued to Nick Taylor reveals that he was cited for violating a local ordinance, not a state law. In fact, a quick internet search of the terms associated with this story will dig up stories of various municipalities passing such laws for myriad reasons. Ann Arbor just passed one, with the intended purpose of cutting back on pollution. Others who chimed in on Taylor's story assumed the law was in place to deter auto theft. Is there really any good reason to flatly prohibit the unattended idling car? Depends on who you ask. Which explains the mish-mash of laws out there.
First: What is the state law on this topic?
Michigan's cars and their drivers are governed by the Michigan Motor Vehicle Code. I suspect that each of the 49 other states have a similar dumping ground for their laws. The MVC is a subsection of the Michigan Compiled Laws, something I am inserting here so you understand the abbreviations I will use. MCL 257.676 is the only state law I can find on point. It states in part: "A person shall not allow a motor vehicle to stand on a highway unattended without engaging the parking brake or placing the vehicle in park and stopping the motor of the vehicle."
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Notice that the law only prohibits the unattended running vehicle on a "highway." As you might imagine, a highway is defined elsewhere in the MVC at MCL 257.20. There, the place we are talking about must be "publicly maintained" and "open to the use of the public." Taylor's car was in his driveway, which is the part of the story which elicited the most outrage. But, under state law, Taylor's car was not on a public highway. So what he was doing was not against state law. It was only an alleged violation of a local ordinance.
The upshot here? There is no statewide blanket prohibition against letting your car idle unattended that covers the whole state of Michigan, wall-to-wall. The state law only addresses leaving the car running unattended on a public road or highway. There MIGHT be a local ordinance against this practice depending on where you live. If you want to do this and are curious, you need to look up your local municipality and see if they have an ordinance against it. As noted above, Roseville has such a law and Ann Arbor has one that goes into effect shortly. But pay close attention to the ordinance if you find one. Does it prohibit the act everywhere within city (or town, or village) limits, or does it only prohibit it on public roadways?
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And, as with anything else in this democracy, if your local governing body has a law you deem to be stupid on the books, appeal to the local authorities to repeal the law or narrow it. Especially in the northern climes like Michigan, there are good reasons for a car owner to want to let his car run unattended, assuming he or she is doing so responsibly.
Steve Lehto is a writer andfrom Michigan. He specializes in Lemon Law and frequently writes about cars and the law. His most recent books include Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow, and Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird: Design, Development, Production and Competition. He also has a where he talks about these things.
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