Rules of the Road

Do I have to take off my sunglasses when driving through tunnels?

A yellow sign is a caution or advisory, so while it’s advised to remove sunglasses at a tunnel, it likely would be safer to keep prescription lenses on than look around the car for another pair of glasses or remove them altogether, limiting your sight.
A yellow sign is a caution or advisory, so while it’s advised to remove sunglasses at a tunnel, it likely would be safer to keep prescription lenses on than look around the car for another pair of glasses or remove them altogether, limiting your sight. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: As an eyesight-challenged person, my license requires that I wear corrective lenses. I have either my prescription glasses or sunglasses at all times. Recently I was driving on one of the few gorgeous sunny March days, and I came through a tunnel. A sign read “No Sunglasses.” It seemed like the lesser of three evils to wear the sunglasses. I could A) keep wearing my sunglasses, B) search for my glasses, which would distract me from driving or C) take them off and not be able to see at all. My question is did I do what is right/legal?

Answer: Your question is actually two questions in one: “Is it right?” and “Is it legal?”

The legal one is the easiest to answer, so let’s start there. Whether or not you broke the law is dependent on the background color of the sign. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices lists a pile of sign colors along with their meaning, but the two colors we’re most concerned with for this question are white and yellow. White traffic signs are regulatory while yellow signs are for warnings.

What does that mean for a driver? Regulatory signs give notice of traffic laws. Speed limit signs come to mind. The black text on a white background means that the speed shown on the sign is the enforceable maximum for that road. If you’re speeding-ticket-averse, this is the number you stay under.

In contrast, warning signs give notice of a situation that may not be readily apparent. If you’ve seen a sign with a squiggly line (representing curves ahead) with a speed indicated below it, that’s a warning sign. The speed indicated on the sign is advisory. (More on that later.) But warning signs aren’t just for speed. They could indicate a curve, a steep hill, an upcoming intersection or many other things, including removing sunglasses for a tunnel. Although the original question doesn’t specify the sign color, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that it is a yellow warning sign, since I can’t find any law in the Revised Code of Washington that prohibits wearing sunglasses in a tunnel. Most likely, you didn’t violate the law by wearing your sunglasses through the tunnel.

But is it right? I suppose one could argue that you should have been prepared with your non-tinted prescription glasses for this particular moment, but in the real world we sometimes encounter things we weren’t expecting while driving, and it sounds like you considered the options and made the best choice you could under the circumstances. The fact that you are able to ask the question is proof that you successfully navigated the tunnel, so I’m inclined to agree with your decision.

However, those yellow signs are there for a reason, and as a general rule it is not wise to disregard them. Let’s go back to advisory speed signs. West Badger Road, for example, has a speed limit of 45 mph. The road is flat and straight, except for one short S-curve that goes over a little hill, resulting in a combination of corners and poor visibility. An advisory speed of 30 mph is posted before the curve. I suppose a driver could take the attitude that since it’s “only” advisory, he’ll continue on at the speed limit. (I intentionally used the masculine pronoun, since males are almost four times more likely to be killed in a speed-related crash than females.) In contrast, a wise driver will recognize that “advisory” and “advice” are kind of similar, and it’d be foolish to reject good advice.

Here’s another bit of information about speed: In the RCW, the first sentence of the basic speed limit rule (RCW 46.61.400) states that no one shall drive “at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent given the conditions.” It goes on to say drivers shall control their speed to prevent a crash, and that drivers shall drive at an appropriate reduced speed through a curve, among other things. For a driver that disregards the advice of the warning sign and ends up in a crash, the result is likely a ticket for speed too fast for conditions.

To get back to the question at hand, disregarding a warning sign might not be a violation of a specific law, but the outcome of disregarding the warning sign could be evidence of some other violation. In the case of the “no sunglasses” sign, if a driver entering the tunnel wearing dark glasses wasn’t able to see a hazard and caused a crash, what might the driver be charged with? It wouldn’t be wearing sunglasses in a tunnel, but it might be negligent driving. When we exercise our privilege to drive, we also take on the responsibility of making the best decisions possible in the situations we encounter, even if a sign recommends it rather than requires it.

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. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.