Leaving Your Vehicle Unattended with the Engine Running Does Not Imply Permissive Use

During the colder winter months, I like to start my car’s engine and let it warm up before I have to actually get back in and drive to work. My insurance agent has told me that if someone were to get in my car while the engine is running (essentially stealing it) and have an accident, I could be held at fault. Is this true? Megan, DC


Thank you for your question. We actually hear a lot of confusion over this issue during the winter months when this is such a tempting thing to do.

As with anything else, if your insurance agent is going to tell you that such an action of yours would result in your being found at fault for an accident, ask him or her to quote the law that states this to you. It is extremely doubtful that he will be able to do so.

It might be irresponsible or even illegal to leave a vehicle engine running while unlocked and unattended, depending upon where the owner/driver lives or where this occurs. However, this action would not make the person negligent if some third person were to take advantage of the situation and steal the vehicle. Leaving your vehicle running with the keys does not give an unknown person explicit or implied permission to drive it away.

If this situation were to happen to you, not only would you have the non-permissive use defense in your favor, but you would also have basic liability rules on your side.

The proximate (meaning main or underlying) cause of any accident that the thief (because that is precisely what the non-permissive driver would be) subsequently had would be the result of their negligent driving. The proximate cause would not be your action, nor would it even necessarily be the actual theft.

So while you might receive a citation or ticket from the police for leaving your vehicle unlocked with the engine running while unattended, that would be about it. The responsibility for the accident itself would fall upon the thief.

All of this being said, just use your better judgment. Consider where you live; rural areas with fewer neighbors and less foot traffic might indicate a lower chance of having your vehicle stolen should you choose to leave it running, but not necessarily. It certainly is nice to get into a cozy warm vehicle in the morning, but having that vehicle stolen can be a real hassle.

This article is approved for informational purposes and is not intended to take the place of competent local legal counsel.

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