WASHINGTON – The recent nationwide cold snap isn’t just making Americans uncomfortable. It’s turning some into lawbreakers.

The shocking news of state and local regulations that make it illegal to warm up your frozen car is hitting home in Texas, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin, South Carolina – even some cities in Minnesota.

Who knew it could be illegal to run back inside while your car is warming up in winter – in a practice sometimes called “puffing”?

Many Americans are getting first-hand experience this brutal winter with the latest manifestation of what some call the “Nanny State.”

The reason for such laws is usually linked with the increased threat of vehicles being stolen – and some of them carry hefty fines for enticing car thieves to commit their crimes. The laws are a little fuzzy on the newer technology of “auto-start” vehicles specifically designed for the comfort of their drivers and passengers.

  • In 2004, the state of Ohio enacted a law that states, “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 from the ignition. …” The fine in Ohio is $150.
  • A similar law in West Virginia puts the first-offense fine at $100 and the second at $500.
  • You might be surprised to learn that even Texas has a state law against “puffing.” The “puffing” is the tell-tale exhaust that comes out the back of the car on cold mornings. Leaving a vehicle unattended with the keys still in the ignition – whether it’s running or not – is a violation of the Texas Transportation Code. It’s a Class C misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500.
  • In Madison, Wisc., it’s illegal to leave your car on a public street with the keys in the ignition – warming up or not.
  • Even in Colorado, famous for its skiing, it’s illegal statewide to warm up your car while you’re not in it. Police in the state are actually cracking down on the practice to reduce the number of stolen vehicles. They are actively patrolling neighborhoods looking for homeowners trying to get to work in the morning without freezing.
  • South Carolinians are unaccustomed to the kind of frigid cold temperatures much of the country has been experiencing over the last week. Police there have been issuing warnings to motorists for “puffing” offenses.

One county in Maryland is reporting an increase in vehicle thefts that can be directly attributed to the cold weather.

Prince George’s County police reported that at least four vehicles were stolen in one day, all of them briefly unattended while owners remained indoors while the cars heated up. In most cases, the cars were stolen early in the morning, likely when the car owners were preparing to go to work.

“It’s cold outside, but whatever you do, don’t leave your car unattended,” said Officer Harry Bond, a spokesman for Prince George’s County police, to the Washington Post. “It only takes a few seconds for a thief to take your belongings inside the car or take your vehicle.”

Police have been ticketing unattended vehicles with fines of nearly $70.

Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is getting into the war on “puffing.” It’s not thefts that bother the EPA. It’s global warming. The EPA hasn’t started issuing fines yet. But the agency is issuing warnings about how the practice hurts fuel economy and the environment.

The EPA issued a report that claims “[m]odern vehicles need little warm-up. Idling for long periods in cold weather can actually cause excessive engine wear.”

Though Minnesota has no statewide laws against “puffing,” the city of Minneapolis does. Police there won’t fine you, however. They just take keys to the police station.

The city of Toronto bans warming up cars for more than three minutes altogether, with or without a driver inside.

General Motors, in a press release encouraging remote starters, recently said that warming up a car actually reduces pollutants, “because the catalyst that traps the unburned hydrocarbons only activates once the engine is warm.”

For the record, no anti-“puffing” laws exist in Alaska where motorists frequently leave their cars running while they visit stores. Some even leave them running while they work.

See the report from Colorado:

And from Ohio:

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