Rules of the Road

Rules of the Road: Can plates, brake lights be blocked?

While participants in a Project Santa classic car parade in Whatcom County in 2003 could get away with a reindeer strapped to the front of their Ford Mustang, in regular driving it is illegal to have something obscuring your license plate.
While participants in a Project Santa classic car parade in Whatcom County in 2003 could get away with a reindeer strapped to the front of their Ford Mustang, in regular driving it is illegal to have something obscuring your license plate. The Bellingham Herald

Question: I often see cars with brake lights and/or license plates obscured. The usual culprits are bicycle racks or ornamental license plate brackets. Obscured brake lights are an obvious hazard and obscured plates would seem to be a problem for law enforcement. Why are these vehicles allowed on the road?

Answer: As far as allowing them on the road, it is up to each officer who sees a violation to decide what his response will be, from ignoring it, to a stop with a verbal warning to correct it, to a written warning to correct it, to a notice of infraction. These decisions are frequently based on the perceived “seriousness” of the violation and what the officer is currently tasked with accomplishing (calls he is assigned to).

In an ideal world, the owner/operator of a vehicle would make sure that the lights and license plates were visible and that all of the rules of the road were being followed.

The RCWs that deal with both of these issues are listed below. There are many more sections to them, but those can be accessed on the state website.

RCW 46.37.200 Stop lamps and electric turn signals displayed. (1) Any vehicle may be equipped and when required under this chapter shall be equipped with a stop lamp or lamps on the rear of the vehicle which shall display a red or amber light, or any shade of color between red and amber, visible from a distance of not less than one hundred feet and on any vehicle manufactured or assembled after January 1, 1964, three hundred feet to the rear in normal sunlight, and which shall be actuated upon application of a service brake, and which may but need not be incorporated with one or more other rear lamps.

RCW 46.16A.200 License plates. (5)(a) Display. License plates must be: (iii) Kept clean and be able to be plainly seen and read at all times.

Rules of the Road is a regular column with questions and answers on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Answers come from David Wright, a retired officer from the Bellingham Police Department who serves on the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. For previous Rules of the Road columns or to ask a question, go to bellinghamherald.com/news/traffic/rules-of-the-road/.

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