Rules of the Road

Some traffic laws, including having insurance, apply statewide, even on private roads

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Question: Can a person receive a ticket for driving without insurance on private property?

Answer: The short answer: Yes. If you had asked, “Can a person receive a ticket on private property?” the answer would have been much longer.

And now for the longer answer: Most traffic violations apply when a driver is on a public roadway, but some traffic laws apply statewide. I’ll explain how to identify which rules belong just to the road and which ones are anywhere in the state.

In the first sentence of the first section of RCW 46.61 (the part of the law titled “Rules of the Road”) it states, “The provisions of this chapter relating to the operation of vehicles refer exclusively to the operation of vehicles upon highways except:” and then it lists two exceptions.

The first exception is when the law specifies another location, and the second exception lists several laws that apply statewide. These include the reckless driving, impaired driving, vehicular homicide and a few other serious traffic violations. Essentially the law is telling us that traffic rules only apply on public roads unless it tells you otherwise.

Now let’s go the chapter on vehicle insurance. At the beginning of this section of law it states that “No person may operate a motor vehicle . . . in this state unless the person is insured . . .” That little phrase, “in this state” is our indicator that this law applies statewide as opposed to just on public roads.

That answers the original question, but now I have my own. I’m a bit curious how you would end up getting an infraction for driving without insurance when you were on private property. Officers don’t typically do traffic enforcement on private property (as mentioned earlier, most of the traffic laws don’t apply there.)

I can think of three scenarios where it might happen, so here are my guesses:

A driver had a collision on private property (maybe a parking lot or a private gated neighborhood) and the investigating officer found out they didn’t have insurance. I didn’t mention it earlier, but collision laws apply statewide so even if you crash on private property the police can still investigate it.

(And I hope I’m wrong about this one) A driver was on private property committing one of the more serious traffic violations I referenced above and was stopped by police who observed the violation.

A driver was speeding on the private roads of a homeowners association, and that association has a written agreement with local police to enforce speeding laws.

While we’re on the topic of mandatory vehicle insurance, I should point out that there are a few exceptions to the requirement to have vehicle insurance. Before we get to those exceptions I’ll state the obvious: It’s a bad idea to drive around without insurance, even if you’re not required to have it.

Now for the exceptions:

Motorcycles: Given that motorcycles are by far the least safe mode of transportation on the road, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to be insured, but it’s not required.

Collector vehicles: These are vehicles that are at least 30 years old in good running condition, have been registered as a collector vehicle, and are only used for car club events, exhibitions, parades, tours and occasional pleasure driving. Anyone who spends thousands of dollars restoring a collectable car is probably going to insure it even if it’s not required, but the minimal standards for what qualifies as a collector vehicle are concerning.

If you have a beat up 1987 Ford Taurus station wagon that still runs, you could pay the 35 dollars for a collector plate and never have to insure your car. Of course you’re violating the law if you drive it for any reason other than those listed above, but the person who registers a beat up station wagon as a collector vehicle probably isn’t too concerned about the spirit of the law to begin with.

Horseless carriages: The rules for a horseless carriage are similar to the rules for a collector vehicle, but must be at least 40 years old. I find the term “horseless carriage” to be an interesting choice — the horseless Carriage Club of America defines a horseless carriage as a motor vehicle built prior to 1916, and this law includes cars from the 70s, but that’s the term in the law.

Government owned vehicles: They’re exempt from this rule but there are other requirements regarding coverage of publicly owned vehicles.

And that concludes the long version of, “Yes, you can get a ticket for driving without insurance on private property.”

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. 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.


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