Rules of the Road

Road Rules: Can police ticket on private roads, parking lots?

The Roosevelt Elementary School parking lot, from a 2001 file photo. Police can enforce some traffic violations in parking lots.
The Roosevelt Elementary School parking lot, from a 2001 file photo. Police can enforce some traffic violations in parking lots. The Bellingham Herald

Question: Can the police ticket you for not stopping at a stop sign, speeding or other such traffic violations while driving on a privately owned roadway such as a parking lot?

Answer: That’s a great question, and there’s more to it than just a simple yes or no.

Let’s start with the generalities. The opening line of RCW 46.61 (the “Rules of the Road” section of the law) specifies that this chapter applies “exclusively to the operation of vehicles on highways” but is followed by “except.”

We’ll get to the “except” later. First, let’s define highways. When I hear the word “highways,” I think of Interstate 5 or Mount Baker Highway, but a highway is any publicly maintained road that is open to public vehicular travel. Pretty much, if you can drive on it and it was built with taxpayer money, it’s a highway. That means officers can enforce all traffic laws on everything from a busy arterial to a quiet neighborhood street, but not on private property.

Before anyone gets any ideas, this isn’t a free pass to drive like a madman (or woman) in the mall parking lot. That word “except” is followed by some traffic violations that officers can enforce on private property. These include impaired driving, reckless driving, negligent driving, vehicular homicide, vehicular assault and hit-and-run traffic collisions. I think we can agree that even on private property those kinds of actions deserve to be investigated and the laws prohibiting them enforced.

To get back to the original question, failing to stop for a stop sign in a parking lot wouldn’t get a driver a traffic infraction, but if in the process of not stopping the driver showed complete disregard for the safety of others, the driver could get arrested.

If you looked up the RCW that we’ve been discussing, you’ll notice another exception. The law states that the highway limitations don’t apply “where a different place is specifically referred to in a different section.” At first I found that to be a puzzling statement, but I did find another section of the RCW that specifically refers to another place: streets within a Home Owner Association. Officers can enforce speed laws on private roads in neighborhoods where a majority of the HOA has voted to approve enforcement and has met a few other related requirements.

While we’re on the topic of neighborhood associations, private communities also can chose to do their own traffic enforcement. We have an example of that here in Whatcom County with Birch Bay Village. In this gated neighborhood, private security officers enforce the rules of the association, including traffic rules. They can write tickets, and anyone contesting a ticket does so in front of a local judge.

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. Ask a question.