Q. Personal transportation options are great but as an Oregonian, I can’t ride my gas scooter in Washington. It clearly meets all of Oregon’s rules, but only part of Washington’s rules. Can you guys come closer to allowing out-of-state spec scooters that ride in for a visit?

A. I sometimes wonder: if the founding fathers knew every state would create their own traffic laws, would they have been so excited about the tenth amendment and states’ rights? They probably still would have; it does have its merits. However, it may cause some hiccups with interstate travel.

We’ll get to your question about scooters in a bit, but you bring up a larger point that we often don’t think about and probably should. If you travel between states, it’s not a bad idea to be aware of variations in traffic laws.

Mostly, traffic law is remarkably consistent from state to state. Speed limit signs and traffic signals are the same across the nation. Even though states can write their own laws, they’re in many cases all working from the same playbooks. For example, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices comes from the Federal Highway Administration and is the standard used nationwide for any kind of sign, signal or road marking. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sets the standards for vehicle safety.  

When the roads and the vehicles on them meet the same standards across the country, the rules that govern them are consistent too (mostly). However there are variations. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Yellow lights – In some states, like Washington, the yellow light is permissive (you can enter an intersection on a yellow light) and some, like Oregon, are restrictive (you can only enter an intersection on a yellow light if it’s not possible to stop safely).
  • Distracted driving – 37 states ban all cell phone use for novice drivers, 24 states prohibit handheld cell phone use, 48 states prohibit texting while driving.
  • Seatbelts –primary enforcement laws, secondary enforcement laws, no laws (for adults in New Hampshire)
  • Window tint – The amount of window tint allowed varies wildly from state to state.

And motorized scooters. It’s not just Oregon and Washington with different rules. Scooter laws might have the most nation-wide variation of any law I’ve seen. It ranges from no scooter laws at all to a complete ban in some cities. Some states require a motorcycle license to ride them, some require registration, some have maximum speed limits of 15 mph, and some have a minimum age requirement. Then there’s the design itself. Maximum engine size and top speed vary between states, and some states allow up to four wheels.

I can’t get into the scooter rules in every state, but in Washington, a “motorized foot scooter” is defined as “a device with two or three wheels that has handlebars, a floorboard that can be stood upon while riding, and . . . has a maximum speed of no greater than twenty miles per hour on level ground.” If your scooter doesn’t meet these standards, you’re pretty much limited to riding it in your driveway.

Getting back to your question, if by “you guys” you mean me and my traffic safety colleagues, then no, I have no power to align the scooter laws of Washington and the neighboring states. If by “you guys” you mean the Washington State Legislature, well, when states are free to decide what’s best for them, they won’t always agree. I guess you could say that’s both the beauty and the complexity of living in a group of united states.