Should registration, insurance stay in cars when not driving


Registration and insurance laws were modified to allow documents to be kept by the driver in an “electronic format,” providing a tool to help limit the threat of information being stolen during a car break-in.

Getty Images

Question: We’ve had a lot of car break-ins in our area lately. An obvious course of action is not to leave valuables in the car. But what about paperwork like registration and proof of insurance? Removing documents every time you leave a vehicle seems like a recipe for an awkward moment when you forget them or someone else drives the vehicle. Do you recommend taking them or leaving them in the vehicle?

Answer: Yep, you’re supposed to have your registration and insurance documents in your vehicle when you drive, but the crime prevention folks will tell you it’s a bad idea to leave them there when you’re not with the car. What do you do when the crime prevention advice doesn’t quite sync up with the law?

The odds of having your car broken into, your registration stolen and then getting stopped by the police for a traffic violation before you have time to get a new registration are remarkably low. But if you’re the one who found yourself in that position, those low odds are no comfort, and you’ve just shown that low odds are still non-zero.

The law requires that your vehicle registration “be carried in the vehicle for which it is issued” and that your proof of insurance “must be provided on the request of a law enforcement officer.” You might think you’re stuck with keeping paper copies in the car, but a few years ago both the registration and insurance laws were modified to allow documents in an “electronic format.” You could take a photograph of your registration and download your insurance card from your insurance company, and you’d be set.

That doesn’t solve the problem if you let a friend or family member borrow your car. If they get stopped by police and call you asking where your documents are you could text them the digital images, but that seems less than ideal. If paper copies in the vehicle seem like the best option, you could put them somewhere besides the glove box so they’re harder to find. (Of course, if a thief can’t find them, your friend borrowing the car probably can’t find them either unless you remembered to tell them where they are.)

You could make copies of both documents and then take a thick black marker to your address. The concern is the unlikely, but again non-zero, possibility that someone uses the address on your registration to go to your home and steal your stuff because they know you’re not there. The law doesn’t state that photocopies are acceptable (or unacceptable), but if a photo on your phone is OK, a photocopy is probably OK too. If an officer thinks the copy is suspicious (or you don’t have your registration with you), it’s easy enough to check the vehicle registration through the mobile data terminal in their car. There’s no database to confirm your insurance though, so you’ll need that for sure.

This is not a guarantee, but from what I’ve observed you’re unlikely to get a ticket for forgetting your registration (assuming it’s current), but more likely to get one for not having proof of insurance.

Ultimately though, your driving practices are going to be the biggest factor in whether or not you ever have to produce your registration and insurance card. A forgotten registration doesn’t cause a crash, but distraction, impairment, speeding, and other risky behaviors do, and that’s what police are watching for.

If you focus on safe driving habits it’s likely that you’ll never have to test out what happens if you don’t have your registration with you.

Related stories from Bellingham Herald

Profile Image of Doug Dahl

Doug Dahl, Target Zero manager communications lead, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday.