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AGO 1981 No. 2 - February 25, 1981
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Ken Eikenberry | 1981-1992 | Attorney General of Washington

HIGHWAYS ‑- COUNTY ROADS ‑- MOTOR VEHICLES ‑- SNOWMOBILES ‑- LOCAL REGULATION OF SNOWMOBILES ON PUBLIC HIGHWAYS OR ROADWAYS

(1) Under RCW 46.10.110, a board of county commissioners (as the responsible governing body in the case of county roads) may open to snowmobiles a county road which is also open to conventional vehicles.

(2) Neither the provisions of chapter 46.16 RCW nor those of chapter 46.37 RCW apply to snowmobiles, even when operated on a public highway or roadway which is also open to conventional vehicles. 

(3) A county may not establish equipment standards or impose age qualifications for the operation of snowmobiles which are inconsistent with RCW 46.10.090 or RCW 46.10.120, respectively.

                                                              - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                February 25, 1981 

Honorable Jeffrey C. Sullivan
Prosecuting Attorney
Yakima County
329 County Courthouse
Yakima, Washington 98901 

Cite as:  AGO 1981 No. 2                                                                                                                  

Dear Sir: 

            By letter previously acknowledged, you requested our opinion on several questions relating to the operation of snowmobiles under the provisions of chapter 46.10 RCW.  We paraphrase your questions as follows:

            (1) Under RCW 46.10.110, does a board of county commissioners (as the responsible governing body in the case of county roads) have the authority to open to snowmobiles a public highway or roadway which is also open to conventional vehicles?

             (2) Assuming an affirmative answer to question (1), do the provisions of either chapter 46.16 RCW or chapter 46.37 RCW apply to snowmobiles when operated upon a public highway or roadway which is also open to conventional vehicles?

              [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

(3) Also assuming an affirmative answer to question (1), may a county (a) establish its own equipment standards on snowmobiles operating on those county roadways which are open to both snowmobiles and conventional vehicles; and (b) impose age restrictions on the operators of snowmobiles utilizing such county roadways?

             We answer question (1) in the affirmative and respond to questions (2) and (3) as set forth in our analysis.

                                                                      ANALYSIS

             Question (1):

             Under RCW 46.10.090(1)(f),1/ the operation of snowmobiles upon any public highway or roadway is prohibited except as provided in RCW 46.10.100 and RCW 46.10.110.  The first of those exceptions involves, merely, crossing public highways in accordance with certain specified procedures.  The second exception, as set forth in RCW 46.10.110, is as follows:

             "Notwithstanding the provisions of RCW 46.10.100, it shall be lawful to operate a snowmobile upon a public roadway or highway:

             "Where such roadway or highway is completely covered with snow or ice and has been closed by the responsible governing body to motor vehicle traffic during the winter months; or

             "When the responsible governing body gives notice that such roadway or highway is open to snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicle use; or

              [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

"In an emergency during the period of time when and at locations where snow upon the roadway or highway renders such impassible to travel by automobile; or

             "When traveling along a designated snowmobile trail."  (Emphasis supplied)

             It will be seen that this statute sets forth, in the alternative, four separate and independent circumstances under which it can be lawful to operate a snowmobile upon a public roadway or highway.  Under three of those circumstances, it is apparent that any such operation would be limited to instances when travel by conventional motor vehicles, or automobiles, is either prohibited or impossible‑-or both.  On the other hand, there is in the above‑underscored third paragraph of RCW 46.10.110 no such restriction.  Rather, that paragraph simply provides that whenever the responsible governing body gives notice that a certain public highway or roadway is open to snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicle use, it will then be lawful to operate a snowmobile upon such highway or roadway.

             The language of this portion of the statute is plain and unambiguous.  Accordingly, its meaning must be derived from its own language.  In Re Lehman, 93 Wn.2d 25, 604 P.2d 948 (1980).  And the only stated limitation in the provision upon the authority of the responsible governing body2/ to open the highway or roadway to snowmobiles is that notice must first be given.  We thus answer question (1) in the affirmative.

            Question (2):

            This question assumes that answer and, repeated for ease of reference, asks:

                          [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

Assuming an affirmative answer to question (1), do the provisions of either chapter 46.16 RCW or chapter 46.37 RCW apply to snowmobiles when operated upon a public highway or roadway which is also open to conventional vehicles?

             (a)Chapter 46.16 RCW:

             We will first consider the applicability of chapter 46.16 RCW.  With certain exceptions not here relevant, that chapter requires the registration of vehicles operated upon the public highways of this state3/ and contains registration procedures for such vehicles.  But, notably, chapter 46.10 RCW (which we have here been considering) also requires the registration of a specific type of vehicle, the snowmobile,4/ and contains registration procedures applicable to such vehicles.  In other words, both of these laws concern vehicle registration, with chapter 46.16 RCW pertaining to the registration of vehicles, generally, and chapter 46.10 RCW being a special statute specifically governing the registration of snowmobiles.

             Ordinarily, when two statutes pertain to the same subject matter and are not actually in conflict, they must be interpreted to give meaning and effect to both, even though one statute is general in operation and the other is special.  Pearce v. G.R. Kirk Co., 92 Wn.2d 869, 602 P.2d 357 (1979) and cases cited therein.  Where, however, an irreconcilable conflict exists between a general and a special statute dealing with the same subject matter, that conflict is to be resolved in favor of the special statute.  State ex rel. Phillips v. Liquor Control Board, 59 Wn.2d 565, 369 P.2d 844 (1962); and see also,State v. Rochelle, 11 Wn.App. 887, 527 P.2d 87 (1974).  With that principle in mind, we note, and dispose of this part of your second question on the basis of, the following preemptory language of RCW 46.10.040:

                          [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            ". . .

             "The registration fees provided in this section shall be in lieu of any personal property or excise tax heretofore imposed on snowmobiles by this state or any political subdivision thereof, and no city, county, or other municipality, and no state agency shall hereafter impose any other registration or license fee on any snowmobile in this state.

             ". . ."

            Clearly, registration fees of the kind prohibited by RCW 46.10.040 are imposed on vehicles registered under the provision of chapter 46.16 RCW.  See, for example, RCW 46.16.060 and 46.16.061.  In addition, although RCW 46.10.010(2) refers to a snowmobile as a vehicle, that subsection then defines a snowmobile as a vehicle ". . . which is not otherwise registered as, or subject to the motor vehicle excise tax in the state of Washington."

             We therefore answer the first part of your second question in the negative.  In our view, the broad and fundamental nature of the conflict between the two laws, chapters 46.10 and 46.16 RCW, clearly indicates that the registration provisions of the former are to be the exclusive registration requirements applicable to snowmobiles in this state.

             (b)Chapter 46.37 RCW:

             We next address your question as it relates to the applicability of chapter 46.37 RCW to snowmobiles operated upon public highways or roadways which are also open to conventional vehicles.

             This chapter relates to vehicle lighting and other equipment.  In essence, it establishes equipment requirements and standards which, with certain exceptions not relevant to your inquiry, apply to all vehicles moved or operated upon the highways of this state.  But, again, the snowmobile law, chapter 46.10 RCW, also contains equipment standards applicable to  [[Orig. Op. Page 6]] one particular type of vehicle, the snowmobile.  And, as in the case of vehicle registration, it is our view that the equipment requirements of the two RCW chapters are in conflict.

             For example, under the terms of RCW 46.10.090, it is only necessary, in order lawfully to operate a snowmobile, that it be equipped with a lighted headlight and taillight when required for the safety of others and that it also have an adequate braking device operated by hand or by foot.  But the lighting and equipment standards of RCW 46.37.040 and 46.37.050 are more stringent than, and thus inconsistent with, this requirement.  Specifically, both sections require dual headlights and taillights.  Likewise, the braking equipment required on vehicles, generally, by RCW 46.37.340 is more complex than that required by RCW 46.10.090.

             On the basis of the same rule of statutory construction discussed above in reference to the registration of snowmobiles, these conflicts between the equipment provisions of chapter 46.37 RCW and chapter 46.10 RCW must be resolved in favor of the latter special statute.  Accordingly, we are of the opinion that the vehicle equipment provisions of chapter 46.37 RCW do not apply to snowmobiles.

             Moreover, even absent the obvious conflicts between specific equipment requirements of the two chapters, we would reach the same conclusion on the basis of the rule that no statute should be given a construction leading to absurd consequences.  Lenci v. City of Seattle, 63 Wn.2d 664, 388 P.2d 926 (1964); Blondheim v. State, 84 Wn.2d 874, 529 P.2d 1096 (1975).  In this instance, snowmobiles, by virtue of their own special characteristics, could not comply with certain of the vehicle equipment requirements contained in chapter 46.37 RCW.  For example, RCW 46.37.420 prohibits the operation of a vehicle upon the public highways unless it is equipped with tires.  Other sections of chapter 46.37 RCW establish tire standards.  But snowmobiles have no wheels, and thus, no tires.  We thus believe it would be absurd to conclude that chapter 46.37 RCW applies to snowmobiles when, by their very nature, they would be in violation of certain equipment requirements of that chapter.

              [[Orig. Op. Page 7]]

            Question (3):

             Your third question, also repeated for ease of reference, similarly assumes an affirmative answer to question (1) and asks:

            Also assuming an affirmative answer to question (1), may a county (a) establish its own equipment standards on snowmobiles operating on those county roadways which are open to both snowmobiles and conventional vehicles; and (b) impose age restrictions on the operators of snowmobiles utilizing such county roadways?

             In responding to this question, let us first note, and dispose of, the following language of RCW 46.10.185:

             "Notwithstanding any other provisions of this chapter, the local governing body may provide for the safety and convenience of snowmobiles and snowmobile operators.  Such provisions may include, but shall not necessarily be limited to, the clearing of areas for parking automobiles, the construction and maintenance of rest areas, and the designation and development of given areas for snowmobile use."

             Standing alone, this statute could be interpreted as authorizing a local governing body to regulate the operation of snowmobiles for safety and convenience purposes.  But, when read in conjunction with RCW 46.10.180 to which we will next turn, and also when read in light of its legislative history and stated purpose, it is our opinion that this particular statute does not truly contain such a grant of authority.  Rather, we believe that RCW 46.10.185 merely allows a local governing body to furnish physical areas and facilities supporting the safety and convenience of snowmobiles and snowmobile operators.

             First, we note that this statute was added to the earlier enacted snowmobile law by section 25, chapter 153,  [[Orig. Op. Page 8]]

Laws of 1972, 1st Ex. Sess.  But the stated purpose of that act, as set forth in section 1 thereof, was as follows:

             ". . . The purpose of this 1972 amendatory act is to increase the availability of trails and areas for all-terrain vehicles by granting authority to state and local governments to maintain a system of ATV trails and areas, and to fund the program to provide for such development . . ."

             Second, the general authorization (to provide for the safety and convenience of snowmobiles and snowmobile operators) which is contained in RCW 46.10.185 is then followed by examples of the kinds of provisions a local governing body might make.  All of those examples are of actions creating or maintaining an appropriate physical environment for the operation of snowmobiles.  The general language of the statute should therefore be interpreted in a manner consistent with, and analogous to, the specific examples which are contained therein.  Des Moines v. Hemenway, 73 Wn.2d 130, 437 P.2d 171 (1968); and State v. Roadhs, 71 Wn.2d 705, 430 P.2d 586 (1967).

             Third, and perhaps most significantly, we also observe that when RCW 46.10.185 was enacted in 1972, there already existed, in RCW 46.10.180, the following provision relating to the regulation of the operation of snowmobiles by local governmental bodies:

             "Notwithstanding any of the provisions of this chapter, any city, county, or other political subdivision of this state, or any state agency, may regulate the operation of snowmobiles on public lands, waters, and other properties under its jurisdiction, and on streets or highways within its boundaries by adopting regulations or ordinances of its governing body, provided such regulations are not inconsistent with the provisions of this chapter; and provided further that no such city, county, or other political  [[Orig. Op. Page 9]] subdivision of this state, nor any state agency, may adopt a regulation or ordinance which imposes a special fee for the use of public lands or waters by snowmobiles, or for the use of any access thereto which is owned by or under the jurisdiction of either the United States, this state, or any such city, county, or other political subdivision."

            It is therefore our opinion that RCW 46.10.185 is confined to the development and maintenance of physical facilities and areas for the safety and convenience of snowmobiles and snowmobile operators.  In turn, any questions concerning the authority of a county or other local governmental body to regulate theactual operation of snowmobiles should be resolved on the basis of RCW 46.10.180, instead.

             Carefully read, it will be seen that this latter statute, RCW 46.10.180, contains two separate limitations on the authority thereby granted to local governments to regulate the operation of snowmobiles.  First, a county or other local governmental unit may not adopt an ordinance or regulation which imposes a special fee ". . . for the use of public lands or waters by snowmobiles, . . ."  And second, a county or other local regulation or ordinance regulating the operation of snowmobiles may not be inconsistent with the provisions of chapter 46.10 RCW.

             In determining whether a local ordinance or regulation is inconsistent with the provisions of a state statute, we first note that our Court has interpreted the phrase "inconsistent with" as meaning "in conflict with."  State ex rel. Hindley v. Superior Court, 70 Wash. 352, 126 Pac. 920 (1912); Bellingham v. Schampera, 57 Wn.2d 106, 356 P.2d 292 (1960).  And, underSchampera, supra, an ordinance is in conflict with a statute (a) if it permits or licenses that which the statute forbids or prohibits or (b) if the ordinance forbids or prohibits that which the statute permits or licenses.

             (a)Equipment Standards:

            With that test in mind, we will first address the portion of your question relating to the authority of a county to establish equipment requirements for snowmobiles operating on those county roads which are open to both snowmobiles and conventional vehicles.

              [[Orig. Op. Page 10]]

            We have already made reference to the fact that chapter 46.10 RCW contains snowmobile equipment requirements.  See, again, so much of RCW 46.10.090 as pertains to snowmobile equipment.  And, while that provision is framed in negative terms (it clearly prohibits the operation of snowmobiles which are without certain equipment noted in that section), we also believe that it conveys an affirmative meaning; namely, that snowmobiles with the equipment referred to in the statute may lawfully be operated upon the public highways or roadways in this state‑-including those circumstances set forth in RCW 46.10.110.

             But, as we have seen, Schampera, supra, read in the light of RCW 46.10.180, dictates that no county or other unit of local government may adopt an ordinance or regulation pertaining to snowmobile equipment which either permits that which RCW 46.10.090 prohibits or prohibits that which RCW 46.10.090 permits.  Therefore, it obviously follows that any county or other local regulation or ordinance purporting to permit the operation of snowmobiles without the equipment referred to in the statute would be inconsistent therewith and, thus, would be invalid.  Likewise, it is our view that any county or other local ordinance or regulation requiring additional or different equipment than is required by RCW 46.10.090 (e.g., headlights, taillights, brakes or mufflers) would also be inconsistent with RCW 46.10.090 and, thus, beyond local authority under RCW 46.10.180.

             (b)Age Requirements:

             We now address the portion of your third question concerning the authority of a county to impose age restrictions on the operators of snowmobiles utilizing roadways also open to conventional vehicles.

            Just as it covers equipment, chapter 46.10 RCW also contains a provision regulating the age of snowmobile operators.  See, RCW 46.10.120 which reads as follows:

             "No person under twelve years of age shall operate a snowmobile on or across a public roadway or highway in this state, and no person between the ages of twelve and sixteen years of age shall operate a snowmobile on or across a public road or highway  [[Orig. Op. Page 11]] in this state unless he has taken a snowmobile safety education course and been certified as qualified to operate a snowmobile by an instructor designated by the commission as qualified to conduct such a course and issue such a certificate, and he has on his person at the time he is operating a snowmobile evidence of such certification:  PROVIDED, That persons under sixteen years of age who have not been certified as qualified snowmobile operators may operate a snowmobile under the direct supervision of a qualified snowmobile operator."

            Like RCW 46.10.090, this provision is framed in negative language.  It unqualifiedly prohibits any person under twelve years of age from operating a snowmobile on or across a public highway or roadway, and it also prohibits persons between the ages of twelve and sixteen from doing so unless they meet certain certification standards contained in the statute.  But then, by an affirmative proviso, the statute permits a person between the ages of twelve and sixteen, regardless of certification, to operate a snowmobile on or across a public highway or roadway while under the direct supervision of a qualified snowmobile operator.

             Again, it is our view that RCW 46.10.120, although generally negative in form, conveys an affirmative meaning; namely, that persons not covered by its prohibitions against the operation of a snowmobile are permitted to do so insofar as any age qualification is concerned.  Therefore, likewise on the basis of the Schampera test of conflict or inconsistency, we respond to this portion of your third question by citing the following examples of what we believe would be impermissible local restrictions on the age of snowmobile operators.

             First, a county or other local governmental unit clearly could not, within its authority under RCW 46.10.180, permit the operation of snowmobiles on or across a public highway or roadway by persons under the age of twelve.  Nor, in our opinion, could it permit such operation of snowmobiles by persons between the ages of twelve and sixteen, except under those  [[Orig. Op. Page 12]] circumstances contained in RCW 46.10.120.  And finally, given our interpretation of RCW 46.10.120, we believe it would be beyond the authority of a local government under RCW 46.10.180 to adopt an ordinance or regulation which, solely on the basis of age, purports to prohibit one who is over sixteen, or between twelve and sixteen where either certified as, or supervised by, a qualified snowmobile operator, from operating a snowmobile on or across a public roadway or highway.

             We trust that the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

 Very truly yours,
KENNETH O. EIKENBERRY
Attorney General

MAUREEN HART
Assistant Attorney General 

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   *** 

1/RCW 46.10.090 was twice amended during the same 1979 legislative session and neither act referred to the other amendment.  However, for purposes of responding to your inquiry, it is not necessary to discuss which of the acts is effective as both generally prohibit the operation of snowmobiles upon the public highways or roadways, with the exceptions hereinafter noted. 

2/In the case of county roads, the responsible governing body would be the board of county commissioners.  See, RCW 36.75.040. 

3/The terms "registration" and "licensing" are used synonymously in chapters 46.10 RCW and 46.16 RCW.  See, RCW 46.10.210, RCW 46.16.010 and WAC 308-96A-005. 

4/A snowmobile is referred to as a "vehicle" in RCW 46.10.010(2).  A snowmobile would also be encompassed by the definition of a vehicle contained in RCW 46.04.670. 

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