Washington law restricts how dark a car’s windows can be tinted, but enforcement isn’t so easy. This week’s Q&A dives into the guidelines after one Skagit County reader raised the issue.
HOV lanes are for carpools. Texting while driving is against the law. But for Randi Freidig, of Skagit County, those rules don’t mean much when drivers can get away with something else: really dark windows.
“Why do so many vehicles in Washington have completely tinted windows, including their front windshields, when state law restricts over-tinting?” Freidig, 71, wrote to Traffic Lab, asking how authorities monitor for illegal behavior when windows are so dark.
First, some troopers carry special instruments to measure how much light can pass through windows and issue $136 tickets for those that are over the legal limit, said Sgt. James Prouty of the Washington State Patrol. It’s one of the many laws and vehicle regulations troopers enforce.
But this is why so many drivers still get away with that “blacked-out” effect: There are only so many troopers watching for violators, and they prioritize dangerous offenses such as speeding or driving under the influence over citing people for over-tinted windows.
Making enforcement more challenging, the Patrol is grappling with a staffing shortage, Prouty said. There were 78 vacancies statewide for troopers who patrol the highways as of last week, out of 671 positions total, according to the Patrol.
“We are definitely out there looking at all types of violations,” Prouty said, saying over-tinted windows is one of them. “But as it stands right now, with the large number of vacancies that we have, we have to focus on those lifesaving violations — speed, impaired driving, distracted driving.”
The law allows owners of passenger vehicles to tint all of their windows, except the windshield, dark enough to let at least 24 percent of light in. SUVs must follow those rules, too, but can have darker back windows. Only tinting the upper edge of windshields is legally allowed.
Prouty said the State Patrol doesn’t specifically track the number of tickets for illegal window-tinting; the violations fall under a broader category of rules governing vehicle equipment, including height requirements and specifics on lights, for instance.
Troopers issued some 1,200 citations last year and 1,500 in 2015 under that broad classification, Prouty said.
California, for instance, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Front side windows there must let more than 70 percent of light through. The national average is about 40 percent, according to the International Window Film Association.
Washington lawmakers passed the current window-tinting restrictions in 2009 to clarify previous standards, citing public safety.
“We are one of the most lenient,” said Brett Buehler, owner of Midnight Window Tint, which operates three auto-tinting shops in the Seattle area.
Drivers tint their windows for a variety of reasons, such as to reduce heat or protect their interiors from sun damage, he said.
In the Seattle area, though, where clouds and rain is the norm, those reasons don’t hold much weight.
“In our state, it comes down to looks,” Buehler said. “They want the front two windows to match the back,” for example.
His business, which has locations in Shoreline, Bellevue and Everett, tints an average of 1,000 vehicles’ windows per month, according to Buehler. Some owners request film darker than the legal limit, he said, and “We try not to do that.”
Under the law, for instance, people with certain health conditions, such as skin or visions problems, can get windows darker than the standard limit by showing businesses like Buehler’s a doctor’s note.
Also, according to the law, all drivers who get their windows tinted should have stickers on their vehicles showing they meet the legal standard.
Freidig, of La Conner, said she notices the most violations while driving to and from Seattle and Tacoma on Interstate 5.
And besides causing problems for troopers watching for distracted driving or other problems inside a car, she said, dark windows can make aggressive driving seem more intense.
“Road rage is scariest when you can’t see a single person in the next car,” she said.
We want to hear from you
Do you feel rage on the road? Or, have you been a victim of aggressive driving? Share your experience with reporter Jessica Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2532.
For other transportation-related questions or ideas, contact email@example.com. Traffic Lab may feature it in an upcoming column. (Bonus points if it’s about a pedestrian or public-transit issue.)