Question: Recently I was driving and came across a funeral procession. There was no police escort, but my father taught me to pull over to the side of the road when I was young. Is there a law requiring this? Several people on the road in front of me did not pull off.
Answer: What your father taught you may have been motivated more by respect for those in mourning than by the letter of the law. Or it may have been based on the law of another state. Laws about funeral processions vary from state to state. In Washington the law doesn’t require drivers to pull over to the side of the road for funeral processions, but there are a few rules on the topic.
Usually I rely heavily on the Revised Code of Washington in responding to questions, but in this case, the Washington Administrative Code covers most of the laws about funeral processions. These laws are found in a section of the WAC called the Washington Model Traffic Ordinance.
What makes a funeral procession official? Mainly, all the vehicles involved need to stick together and identify themselves as part of the procession by having their headlights on “or by such other method as may be determined and designated by the chief of police.” That would imply that the chief of police knows a funeral procession is taking place, leading one to believe that a permit might be needed for a funeral procession. However, WAC 308-330-469 lists funeral processions as one of the exemptions to when a permit is required for a parade or procession.
A funeral procession has to obey all traffic laws (except one – I’ll get to that in a bit). This includes stopping for stop signs and red lights. As you’d expect, a few red lights or a busy four-way-stop intersection can quickly separate a procession. In order to avoid getting separated, the planners of the procession can arrange for escort vehicles to direct procession traffic through intersections, ensuring that the procession stays together. If a procession uses escort vehicles, prior approval must be granted by the local law enforcement agency. In some instances law enforcement agencies themselves may provide the escort; in others it is provided by private companies that have been approved by the local law enforcement agency to offer the service.
What’s the one law that a funeral procession doesn’t have to obey? Following too closely. Actually, it’s not so much that people in funeral processions don’t have to obey the law, but that they are exempt. Typically, the law requires that when vehicles are traveling in a caravan, drivers leave enough room between vehicles for another vehicle to enter the space without danger. The RCW wraps up this point with an exception: “This provision shall not apply to funeral processions.” Instead, the WAC states that drivers in a procession “shall follow the vehicle ahead as close as is practicable and safe.”
That makes sense, because section 308-330-472 of the WAC makes it illegal to interfere with a funeral procession. This includes driving between cars that are part of the procession. And how does another driver know that it’s a funeral procession? Because funeral processions are required to identify themselves by driving with headlights on or other such method, as mentioned earlier.
I think that part of the law is becoming dated. In an era when drivers had to make a conscious decision to turn on headlights it worked fine. Many newer vehicles have their headlights on at all times, which could make it difficult to identify a funeral procession, assuming you didn’t notice the hearse at the front. I don’t know if many funeral directors currently provide participants in a procession with some other identifying marker for their vehicles, but I could see that becoming a standard practice as more cars on the road have headlights on day and night. If a funeral director were to offer such a marker, the law requires that it have the approval of the local law enforcement agency.
Let’s get back to the part about vehicles that are not part of the procession driving between vehicles in the procession. There is an exception to this rule, too. If a procession is interrupted by a traffic control device (stop sign or red light) and there are no officers or escort vehicles directing traffic, other drivers obeying the traffic control device can drive between procession vehicles.
Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.