South Carolinians preparing to leave for work on cold winter mornings need to ask themselves a tough question: Would they rather be law abiding and cold or a warm, toasty criminal.
It is against the state law to leave your car idling unattended in the Palmetto State, according to section 56-5-2570 of the state’s code of laws.
“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 and, when standing upon any grade, turning the front wheels to the curb or side of the highway,” reads the section in its entirety.
But why does this law exist? Is the state heavily invested in the sweater and scarf industries? It turns out the reason is far less sinister.
“The law might sound silly to some, but it exists for two primary reasons,” said Joy Nelson, spokesperson for the Bluffton Police Department. “At any time a small child or elderly person who shouldn’t be behind the wheel could put the car in reverse and end up causing severe damage or harm someone. You also never know if someone could be watching.”
Nelson compared the theft issue to a rash of car break-ins this year stemming from unlocked vehicles.
“It is the same situation with a vehicle running unattended,” said Nelson. “You never know who could jump in at any moment and steal the vehicle.”
You shouldn’t panic if you’re caught with your car idling, though. You’re more likely to get a warning than a ticket, mostly because, by Nelson’s estimate, the majority of people are likely unaware that the law exists.
“We look at it as a teachable moment,” said Nelson. “Because we know that there aren’t that many people who are aware of the law, we want to educate them rather than just slapping them with a fine.”
Nelson said that when an officer encounters an unattended idling car they are likely to approach the homeowner where the car is parked, or wait outside a shop where a car might be running, to explain the potential risks of the behavior.
She did, however, note that if someone is ticketed for the behavior, the fine in Bluffton is $232.50.
Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Bob Bromage said that his deputies were also likely to issue a warning over a ticket, and would only go that far if the car was on public property.
“In those situations we would give the person the benefit of the doubt and say ‘hey, there is a law against leaving your car idling in a parking lot, would you please shut it off,’ because it isn’t a widely recognized or known law,” said Bromage.