Road Rules: What laws are burnouts breaking?


Q: I’ve seen plenty of long, black tire marks out on county roads that look intentional. Once Covid-19 struck and the freeways were empty I even saw a 360-degree burnout on the freeway. What law is it breaking?

A: Let me tell you about Cars and Coffee. The title is so on the nose it hardly needs explanation, but I will anyway. These are events in which automotive enthusiasts drive their show-worthy cars to a parking lot where they drink coffee, socialize and admire each others’ cars. In the few that I’ve attended (as a visitor, not a show car owner) they’ve been fun, casual events with some interesting cars.

However, and you knew there was a however, despite the “no burnouts” rule at every Cars and Coffee event, when it’s over and time to leave, there is sometimes a guy (it’s pretty much always a guy) that does it anyway. And as often happens when a car has more power than the driver has skill, some burnouts turn into crashes. When that happens, you’ll have a swarm of young men all with phone in hand, sprinting toward the car to capture the failure in close-up so they can put it on the internet. It’s like live-streaming karma.

I share the Cars and Coffee burnout scenario because it’s relevant to your question about the law. That swarm of amateur videographers stand at the ready because they recognize if they were ever going to capture on video a burnout that turns into a crash, this is their most likely opportunity. They all know that burnouts equal increased crash risk.

What does that say about the driver doing the burnout? Either that he knew it was potentially dangerous and did it anyway, or he was unaware of the risk, despite any reasonable person knowing otherwise. And right there we have, without getting into legal definitions, recklessness and negligence.

I expect that if an officer observed a driver doing a burnout, the enforcement action would likely be a citation for reckless driving (a misdemeanor) or negligent driving – second degree (a civil infraction). Reckless driving is described in the law as when a person drives “in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property . . .” At least one court in Washington has concluded that doing burnouts in a location where there is the possibility of other people, even if there were no other people actually present, justifies a charge of reckless driving.

Negligent driving – second degree, a lesser charge than reckless driving, is when a driver fails to exercise ordinary care and, as it applies to this situation, is doing “some act that a reasonably careful person would not do . . .” To anyone who thinks that as long as they’re all alone on the road it’s okay to do a burnout, let’s be honest with ourselves; the reasonably careful drivers aren’t doing burnouts.

Beyond these two violations, the law also requires (in two different statutes) that drivers have the duty to “use due care.” I don’t think due care includes donuts. And there’s also a more obscure law that specifically addresses squealing tires. The Washington Administrative Code has a section titled “Motor Vehicle Noise Performance Standards.” In there, you’ll find a law that states, “No person shall operate a motor vehicle in such a manner as to cause or allow to be emitted squealing, screeching or other such noise from the tires . . .”

And there you have it; five laws that could apply to the burnout-inclined driver.

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here