Is It Legal to Leave a Car Running Unattended?

Whenever cold weather approaches, there is an increase in the number of people who leave their cars running unattended in an effort to warm them up before driving anywhere. While this might be good for the engine and make for a toasty commute, it may not always be legal.

Some car thieves refer to the practice of leaving a vehicle running while unattended “puffing.” The word “puffing” refers to the puffs of steam that often emanate from a car's exhaust on a cold morning as it warms up. Car thieves look for cars that are “puffing” because they literally have to do nothing more than walk up and drive away.

In other instances, leaving a car running while unattended could be like leaving a loaded gun on the coffee table with small kids in the house. Anyone could hop into the driver's seat, including children, and cause all kinds of mayhem, either intentionally or accidentally. Just as there can be civil and sometimes criminal liability for knowingly letting someone drive who is
impaired or intoxicated, so too is there a possibility for liability in being so reckless as to leave a vehicle unattended when running where anyone could get into it and begin operating it.

In response, a number of states and local municipalities have passed laws regarding the practice of leaving vehicles unattended while running. For example, Colorado bans the practice entirely and will ticket owners found running their cars or trucks with nobody behind the wheel. Arizona, on the other hand, has a time limit, allowing one to leave a vehicle unattended and running for five minutes or less. There are a wide variety of other variations, but an increasing number of states and municipalities are trying to discourage the seemingly innocent, but often risky practice.

Aside from direct criminal laws against leaving a vehicle running while unattended, there is also a possibility for civil liability. Insurance coverage might not apply to a vehicle stolen because the owner left it running while unattended. Check your policy and ask your agent to find out for sure. Similarly, anyone injured, or any property damage occurring as a result of someone operating the vehicle who should not have been but was able to simply because it was left running may have a claim against the owner of the vehicle (or the person who left it running unattended) for negligence. In some cases it could even be considered grossly negligent and could result in greater liability and even punitive damages.

As a result, while not every jurisdiction has a specific law against leaving a vehicle running while unattended, many do, and the number is growing. Regardless of whether there is a specific law prohibiting the practice, there will always be a chance for significant civil liability resulting from leaving a vehicle running unattended, so it is unwise simply from the standpoint of opening oneself up to a lawsuit. Moreover, insurance may not apply to damages or injuries caused by an accident that occurred only because the owner (or insured driver) left the vehicle running unattended.

For more information about the legality of this practice in your jurisdiction you should contact a local attorney. This is particularly true if an injury or loss has occurred as a result of leaving a vehicle running while unattended. For a list of attorneys in your area, please visit the Law Firms page on our website at

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case.

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