Column: Disoriented WA legislators decide it’s safe to drive with no brake lights during the day

Renton Highlands resident Randy Corman served 28 years on the Renton City Council and is a former Boeing engineer.

By Randy Corman, for the Reporter

House Bill 1513 errantly attempts to improve equity by tossing out almost all automobile equipment safety requirements contained in RCW chapter 46.37.

In doing so, the bill attempts to supersede safety standards based on years of scientific automotive testing with new rules that could only have been written by hurried politicians. Here’s just one example from the bill:

“A peace officer may only stop or detain an operator of a vehicle when the primary reason for the stop is an equipment failure violation when necessary to protect against an immediate, serious threat to the safety of the operator or others on the roadway.”

“Immediate, serious threat to the safety of the operator or others on the roadway” means … Having both taillights, headlights, or brake lights out at nighttime”

“Having both brake lights out at nighttime” is dangerous, but hey… who needs brake lights during the day, right?

The guiding premise of this errant bill is that automobile equipment safety laws are only an excuse for investigative police stops to find drugs and contraband. This is a faulty premise, and the legislature is taking this bad assumption to a deadly result. Drug runners figured out decades ago that they need to keep their vehicles in top working order, and police know that.

Typically, people driving with broken equipment are not the ones running drugs. They are motorists that either don’t know a piece of equipment is broken, or they are not prioritizing their occupant’s safety and the safety of other motorists. In either case, a warning or a fix-it ticket, which generally carries no fine if the equipment is repaired, is the time-tested corrective action.

This bill essentially says motorists can legally drive around with important safety equipment broken and disabled on their cars. Having worked a 33-year career as an engineer, I can tell you that every headlight, tail light, marker light, bumper, and mirror on your car is there for an important reason. In what world are we showing concern for people to let them ride in a car with no tail or brake lights? They may die the first time it gets foggy, or in a rainstorm. Lights are not just needed at night. One headlight out may seem like enough light to some, but there’s an important engineering concept known as redundancy, in which you have two in case one goes out unexpectedly.

Even if the driver feels good about driving around in a broken car like this, what about children in the car that don’t get a say in the matter? From the time of the first car seat laws, we’ve always protected children too young to speak up on behalf of their own safety. Did this legislature decide they no longer care about the lives of children? When I worked in aerospace, we frequently said that it was important to let the engineers design the product, not the lawyers. it would be even worse to let politicians design the product.

Driving safely is expensive. If a motorist can’t afford to replace a tail light bulb, how can we be confident their brakes and tires are safe. I’m all for providing assistance to families that need help maintaining their cars (a small part of this law that is unfortunately too vague and unfunded to be easily implemented), but I’m against letting these families’ cars fall apart on the highway because we don’t insist that they maintain them. Lives will be lost, not saved, by this law.

This bill has one other serious — almost ludicrous — flaw. The bill as currently written eliminates any need to actually pay car tabs. Police can’t pull people over for expired tabs anymore under this law. Considering how much the legislature and local taxing districts have been pushing up the price of tabs, even creating long-running controversy regarding blue-book values, they are now seeming to say “but you don’t have to pay if you don’t want to.” Where does that leave those of us that try to follow the increasingly confounding laws in this state? Will we be fools for registering our cars?

I don’t know how a bill this poorly thought out even gets drafted, let alone presented to a legislative committee. The legislators have to start reading these bills for themselves instead of trusting a lobbyist or party activist to tell them what they should vote yes on.

Randy Corman is a Renton Highlands resident. He served 28 years on the Renton City Council from 1994 to 2021 and spent 33 years as a Boeing engineer from 1984 to 2017.