Rules of the Road

Road Rules: Leave a note if you bump a car, even if there’s no damage

Two vehicles parallel parked close together on Chestnut Street are pictured Wednesday, March 9, in Bellingham. If you are parking and accidentally bump the car in front or behind you, the law says you must find the driver or leave a note, even if there doesn’t appear to be any damage.
Two vehicles parallel parked close together on Chestnut Street are pictured Wednesday, March 9, in Bellingham. If you are parking and accidentally bump the car in front or behind you, the law says you must find the driver or leave a note, even if there doesn’t appear to be any damage. eabell@bhamherald.com

Question: A driver who was paralleled parked backed up to get more space in front in order to leave but in the process bumped into the car behind. The driver got out, looked at the two cars’ bumpers, and drove off. As a pedestrian, I observed this happen and noticed that there didn’t seem to be any damage to the other car’s bumper. Did the driver handle this situation correctly?

Answer: I suspect that the scenario you described happens with moderate frequency. I know I’ve witnessed similar events, where a driver checks for damage from a parking lot bump and, seeing none, leaves. I’m willing to bet that most people think, “No damage, no foul.” But even though that’s how drivers often handle the situation, it doesn’t make it right, according to the law.

In reviewing the requirements of drivers involved in a collision, the law specifies that the driver who strikes an unattended car shall either locate the owner of the vehicle or leave a note with the driver’s name and address, as well as the name and address of the car owner if different from the driver. This obligation is separate from the requirement to report a collision to law enforcement. Drivers are required to report a collision to law enforcement if damage to any vehicle exceeds $1000 or someone is injured. However, there is no specified minimum dollar amount that releases a driver from the requirement to notify an owner of an unattended vehicle that has been struck.

Is it really a collision if there is no damage? I searched through the Revised Code of Washington to see if there was a legal definition for “collide” that might be different from the common understanding of the word, but didn’t find anything. Then I looked at what insurance companies think about one car striking another without causing damage. Unsurprisingly, at least some insurance companies consider it a collision and are willing to raise the offender’s insurance rate. Since the law doesn’t exclude a non-damage incident from a requirement to notify the owner of the unattended vehicle, the best understanding of the text would conclude that damage or not, the driver must find the owner of the other car or leave a note.

Consider what action a police officer might take if he or she witnessed the no-damage bump. I can’t speak for any individual officer, but he or she would be within the law to take enforcement action. If an officer were to choose enforcement, the penalty for leaving the scene of a collision without providing contact information isn’t just an infraction but a misdemeanor, a criminal offense.

Here’s another thing: What appears to be a non-damage incident may in fact involve hidden damage. Modern car bumpers are usually made of some sort of plastic and covered in paint. A collision with no apparent damage could, a few days later, manifest as cracks in the paint that spread across the bumper. There are probably other types of damage that I, as a non-expert, wouldn’t know to look for. Since it’s hard to know from a quick look on the side of the street, leaving contact information is a good policy for anyone striving to be a decent human.

I’ll make one recommendation when it comes to leaving contact information; you can use it or disregard it as you see fit. The law only requires the offending driver to leave a name and address, but that limits the other party to either sending a letter or showing up to your house. If I were the offending driver I’d rather get things resolved quickly, so I’d leave a phone number as well. This law, as best as I can tell, has been on the books since 1927; long before cellphones and texting. It even precedes the time when everyone had a phone in their home, so the address requirement made sense. In a day where our best method of connection is through a mobile device, I’d include that in the contact information.

Whether you take your direction from the law, you believe in karma or you hold any other worldview that rewards good actions and punishes bad ones, leave the note.

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.

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