‘Puffers’ break state law, invite car thieves

Turning on your car’s engine and then going back into the house for a few minutes to let it warm up is not just bad for gas mileage and the environment.

It’s offering your car up to a thief on a silver platter.

And it’s illegal.

There’s even a name for vehicles that are left running by themselves. They’re called “puffers.”

Nearly two-thirds of the people who responded to a recent poll by the PEMCO insurance company — 63 percent — said they crank up their car’s engine and heater to warm up their windshields before scraping off any ice, frost or snow.

This is OK, as far as state law is concerned, if you stay with your vehicle. If you don’t, it’s not.

“No person driving or in charge of a motor vehicle shall permit it to stand unattended without first stopping the engine, locking the ignition, removing the key and effectively setting the brake thereon,” according to the law (RCW 46.61.600).

Based on the remainder of the text, the law appears geared toward preventing cars from rolling and running into things. Still, there’s another very good reason for staying with your vehicle.

“Even if you leave your car unattended for just a few minutes, that’s plenty of time for a thief to break in and drive away,” PEMCO spokesman Jon Osterberg said.

On a cold morning in 2005 in Lynnwood, Charles Williamson left his $59,000 GMC Yukon Denali running in the driveway.

“I went in the house to get some stuff for two minutes, not even that,” he told The Herald the next day. “I heard a noise, and when I came out, my car was going up the road.”

Williamson got his Denali back and an arrest was made. Still, five other vehicles in the area were stolen in the same manner on the same morning.

Most experts now say engine idling, in the vast majority of cases, does nothing to warm up a car or to protect its engine compared with stopping and restarting. It only serves to waste gas and pollute the air.

Massachusetts has an anti-idling law. It sets the limit at a forgiving five minutes.

It does list idling to help melt snow or ice on the windshield as a legitimate exception to the rule.

“It’s a safety problem if you cannot see where you’re going and if the windshield is not warm enough to melt snow and freezing rain while driving,” according to a state of Massachusetts summary of its law.

Still, the summary adds, “Our common sense also tells us that heaters and air conditioning units almost always bring the vehicle’s interior into a comfortable range in a short time. We also know that heaters and air conditioning units work faster when the vehicle is being driven, not when it is left idling.”

Usually, in Western Washington, it doesn’t take much more than a minute or two to heat up the car enough to loosen up the ice or frost.

The moral of the story is, if you must run the engine to scrape the windows, keep it to a minimum and stay with your car — or it may not be yours much longer.

Don Little of Lake Stevens writes: The intersection at 103rd Avenue SE and New Bunk Foss Road needs attention. To make a left turn off of 103rd Avenue onto New Bunk Foss Road you have to pull quite far into the intersection due to the brush on the northwest corner blocking your view of the traffic going east.

Snohomish County engineer Owen Carter replies: We have looked at the intersection of 103rd Avenue SE and New Bunk Foss Road and determined that the sight distance is greater than standard.

However, we believe additional brush cutting would be a benefit at this location. Therefore, I put in a work order request to get additional brush cutting at this location. The Snohomish County road maintenance department has a service request program where the public may report this type of information by calling 425-388-7500 or by emailing us at Contact.PWRM@snoco.org. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

E-mail us at stsmarts@heraldnet.com. Please include your city of residence.

Look for updates on our Street Smarts blog at www.heraldnet.com/streetsmarts.

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