Rules of the Road

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers; but a fire hydrant?

Parking next to a fire hydrant is a violation of the law, even for the United States Postal Service drivers.
Parking next to a fire hydrant is a violation of the law, even for the United States Postal Service drivers. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: Is it legal for mail carriers to park their vehicles in front of a fire hydrant? Right in front of the no parking zone sign?

Answer: As clearly stated in RCW 46.61.570, drivers shall not stand or park a vehicle within 15 feet of a fire hydrant.

Wait, maybe that isn’t clear. What’s the difference between standing and parking a vehicle?

I’ll skip the legal jargon and instead offer a simple explanation. You could legally stop your car in a no-standing zone to allow passengers to get into or out of your car. Any other reason for stopping would be considered standing. In a no-parking zone, along with allowing passengers in and out of your car, you could also load or unload property. Both exceptions to standing and parking are limited to the actual time it takes to load or unload passengers or property.

In some states, parking involves leaving your vehicle. That’s not the case in Washington. Both standing and parking have a “whether occupied or not” component to their definitions. If you pulled into a no-parking zone and left your car running while eating a taco in the driver’s seat, technically you’re parking, according to Washington law.

Of the two, standing is more restrictive than parking, and in the fire hydrant scenario, the law prohibits both. That means the only (or nearly only) legal reason to stop in front of a fire hydrant would be to let a rider in or out. There are a few limited instances when the parking rules are suspended. These would include obeying a police officer and avoiding conflict with other traffic.

Back to the original question: There is no provision in Washington law that allows mail carriers to violate traffic laws, including rules about parking. However, while the drivers themselves can be cited for violations, the United States Postal Service, as a federal agency, has immunity from local laws.

This has created an interesting situation for infractions that are commonly issued to the registered owner of a vehicle rather than a driver, including parking tickets and photo enforcement. Often the driver isn’t present for a parking ticket, so the ticket is associated with the car and it’s owner. And when a traffic camera captures a violation, the notice of infraction is sent to the registered owner of the vehicle.

The city of East Cleveland found that when it submitted traffic violations made by USPS drivers captured on camera, they went unpaid.

As reported by a Cleveland journalist, a lawyer for the Postal Service responded to the city, “In providing mail service across the country, the Postal Service attempts to work within local and state laws and regulations. ... However, as you are probably aware, the Postal Service enjoys federal immunity from state and local regulation. ... The Postal Service requires its employees to obey all traffic laws and rules while operating Postal Service vehicles. However, the state and/or local ordinances imposing penalties and fines cannot be enforced against the Postal Service.”

This sort of situation could also happen if an officer left a ticket on the window of an illegally parked, unattended USPS vehicle. In fact, it has. Last year, KLS News in Salt Lake City reported that USPS owes the city tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid parking tickets.

Not wanting to rely on stories in other states and cities, I spoke with a local postmaster, who was puzzled by my question about parking tickets. Not because he didn’t understand the legal issues, but because in his 33 years working for the postal service, parking tickets have never been a problem. He told me they have very strict internal policies for traffic violations and emphasized several times that all drivers are expected to obey all traffic laws.

Supervisors will sometimes go out and observe to verify that delivery drivers follow traffic laws. The state’s penalty for a driver violating the law is less severe than the consequences USPS administers, which include suspension and termination. As far as the USPS being immune from local laws, that’s a constitutional battle that he never has had to fight.

Parking next to a fire hydrant is a violation of the law, even for the USPS drivers. USPS may not be obligated to pay the fine, but their drivers, if caught, still can face the consequences of their offense.

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 Ask a question.