Rules of the Road

Throwing an apple core out a car window is not only illegal in Washington, it’s unsafe

It is illegal to dispose of anything out of your car window in Washington state. Even something as seemingly harmless as an apple core can affect safety on the highway when if comes to animals and roadkill.
It is illegal to dispose of anything out of your car window in Washington state. Even something as seemingly harmless as an apple core can affect safety on the highway when if comes to animals and roadkill. Getty Images

Question: Is it legal to throw an apple core out my car window while I’m driving? I’ve always assumed (and was told growing up) that it’s legal because an apple core is a biodegradable food scrap.

Answer: Can I turn a question about littering into a traffic safety issue? Yes, I can.

We all know that littering is wrong, and most of us never do it. At least you probably think you don’t litter. You can probably guess where this is going.

Before I accuse anyone of anything, I need to make a confession. On multiple occasions I’ve rolled down my window and thrown an apple core into the ditch on the side of the road.

There. I said it. I feel better already.

What have I confessed to?

As it turns out, a violation of one of Washington’s health and safety laws. Title 70 of the Revised Code of Washington states that “no person shall throw, drop, deposit, discard or otherwise dispose of litter upon any public property in the state or upon private property in this state not owned by him or her or in the waters of this state whether from a vehicle or otherwise . . .”

At risk of getting too far off track, I’d just like to point out the comprehensive effort our legislators made to cover any technique one might use to put litter onto the ground — throw, drop, deposit, discard, dispose. I think someone in the state’s legal counsel got carried away with the thesaurus.

Anyway, I already knew it was against the law to litter, but an apple core doesn’t actually fit the definition of litter, does it?

Here’s how the state defines litter: “all waste material . . . that is illegally dumped . . .” The law uses a lot more words, but that’s the substance of it. If you put waste on property that isn’t yours, you’re littering.

As much as I might try to justify my apple core as organic fertilizer, it’s really just waste. Of course, not all littering is equal; there’s a big difference between throwing an apple core in the ditch and dumping a pickup load of trash in the ditch.

The law reflects that difference. If an officer were to write you a ticket for throwing out your apple core (and I suspect that’s a big if) it would be an infraction. As the amount of litter increases it becomes a crime; first a misdemeanor and then a gross misdemeanor, depending on how much litter gets tossed.

That doesn’t make throwing out an apple core right. It just makes it less wrong.

But what does any of this have to do with traffic safety?

Roadkill. Animals find food waste tossed on the side of the road to be irresistible. That makes animals that like apples vulnerable to getting hit by cars. It also makes the animals that like to eat the animals that like to eat apples vulnerable.

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, there are an average of 1,500 reportable collisions (crashes that incur at least $1,000 damage), 167 human injury collisions and one human fatality collision every year attributed to crashes involving animals.

Unfortunately, they don’t have data on how many of those animals were enticed by thrown out food scraps.

The number of reported crashes is certainly low, as the number of deer alone that are removed from the highway by WSDOT crews exceeds 5,000 a year.

By tossing our apple cores in a trash bag instead of throwing them out the window, we help to reduce vehicle/animal crashes (at least a little), thus protecting both animals and humans.

Ta-da! Littering as a traffic safety issue. I did it.

You might comment that it shouldn’t be so hard to properly dispose of car-generated trash, since we’re legally required to have garbage bags in our cars.

Not so fast. Garbage bags have not been legally required in cars since 2003. But it’s still a good idea.

Back in 1979, Washington decided that the Department of Ecology would make garbage bags with the state-wide anti-littering symbol (Did you know there was an official anti-littering symbol?) printed on the bags and give them to drivers when they renewed their license. Failing to keep a litter bag in your car was a violation of the law.

I know a lot of people who have never had a garbage bag in their car, but I’ve never met anyone who actually got a ticket for it.

I guess at some point the legislature concluded that if we’re not going to enforce a law there’s not much point in having it on the books.

But if you want to comply with Washington’s litter laws I think this is a pretty good guideline: If you’re not willing to toss it on the floor in your house, don’t toss it on the floor of our community.

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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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