Are Remote Car Starters Illegal?

The Legality of Remote Starters

car idling in snow
Johannes Kroemer / Tetra Images

The simple answer to your question is that while remote car starters aren’t illegal, it is illegal to use them in some places. In most jurisdictions that have an applicable law, statute, or regulation, it’s the act of leaving a car unattended while it’s running that is illegal, rather than the specific use of a remote starter.

Some laws even take remote starters into account, in which case it may be legal to use one so long as it has some kind of automatic shutdown functionality in case someone tries to drive away without the key (or key fob, if the vehicle is keyless.) Of course, as always, it is absolutely vital to check up on the local laws yourself, or even contact a lawyer or local law enforcement, before you purchase a remote car starter or install any equipment that could possibly land you in hot water.

The Illegality of Remote Car Starting

In most places where it is illegal to use a remote car starter, the relevant law cites leaving a vehicle unattended while it is running as the actual illegal act. This umbrella covers everything from starting your car to warm it up in the morning, then going back inside to warm yourself up, to leaving the engine running while you run an errand.

The logic behind these laws is similar to the reasoning behind seat belt laws. Even though the car owner is the one who is directly hurt by his or her own actions (i.e., theft of their vehicle in the former case, and personal injury in the latter), the general public also incurs a cost. In the case of seat belt laws, the public may end up paying hospital bills for underinsured motorists, and in the case of theft, the public shoulders the costs of law enforcement attempting to recover the stolen vehicle.

According to one NHTSA study, public expenses related to vehicular accident injuries dropped by $51 million in the first six months after a "click it or ticket" program was instituted, and statutes that make idling a car illegal are aimed at that same type of reduction of public burden. Whether or not you agree with that reasoning, you are bound by the laws in your local jurisdiction, and if you choose to ignore them, you do so at your own risk.

Remote Car Starter Safety Features

Although using a remote car starter achieves the same result as simply starting the engine with a key and locking the doors, remote car starters are inherently “safer” because they don’t involve leaving the key in the ignition. If you don’t have an extra key, and you choose to let your car warm up with the doors unlocked, then using a remote car starter will even add that extra layer of protection.

Some remote car starters come with features that go beyond that, and in some cases, those features exempt them from laws that prohibit leaving a vehicle unattended while it is running. The two most common features involve an automatic shutoff that engages after a specific amount of time has expired or when the vehicle leaves the immediate vicinity of the key fob. So while a thief could still technically steal a car with a remote car starter like that installed, they wouldn’t get very far.

Where are Remote Car Starters Illegal?

Leaving a vehicle unattended while the engine is running is illegal almost everywhere, but the use of remote starters is a significantly murkier issue. If you are concerned, then you are best off reading your local statute to see what the actual working is. If the law refers to leaving the keys in the ignition, then it probably doesn’t apply to remote car starters. And even if it doesn’t specifically refer to leaving the keys in the ignition, choosing a remote starter with the appropriate safety features may violate the letter of the law in your jurisdiction, but it surely doesn’t violate the spirit.

According to some police, the law is specifically meant to deter car theft, so someone who uses a remote starter that itself deters car theft isn’t really the target they’re looking for. So while you are pretty unlikely to receive a ticket (or worse) for firing up your engine remotely, you might just want to make sure the doors are locked first.