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AGO 1961 No. 63 - September 19, 1961
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington


MOTOR VEHICLES ‑- REPORTING OF ACCIDENTS OCCURRING UPON PRIVATE ROADS OR OTHER PRIVATE PROPERTY.

RCW 46.52.030 requires the reporting of automobile accidents which occur off the public highways on private roads or other private property in addition to those occurring upon the public highways.

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                                                              September 19, 1961

Honorable Jay Roy Jones
Prosecuting Attorney
Pend Oreille County
Newport, Washington

                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 61-62 No. 63

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged you requested the opinion of this office on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

            Does RCW 46.52.030 require the reporting of automobile accidents which occur off the public highways upon private roads or other private property?

            We answer your question in the affirmative.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            RCW 46.52.030 as recently re‑enacted [[reenacted]]by chapter 12, Laws of 1961, reads in pertinent part as follows:

            "The operator of any vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to or death of any person or total or claimed damage to either or both vehicles or property to an apparent extent of twenty-five dollars or more, shall, within twenty-four hours after such accident, make a written report of such accident to the chief of police of the city or town if such accident occurred within an incorporated city or town or the county sheriff or state patrol if such accident  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] occurred outside incorporated cities and towns, such report to be in duplicate and the original immediately forwarded by the authority receiving such report to the chief of the Washington state patrol at Olympia, Washington. . . ."

            Where the language of a statute is plain, there is no room for construction since the meaning will be discovered from the wording of the statute itself.  State v. Houck, 32 Wn. (2d) 681, 203 P. (2d) 693 (1949).

            This statute, by its terms, makes no distinction between the reporting of accidents which occur on public highways or other public property and those which occur on private roads or other privately owned property.  In this respect it differs from many of our motor vehicle laws which govern the licensing of vehicles (e.g., RCW 46.16.010) and operators (e.g., RCW 46.20.020), vehicle size (e.g., RCW 46.44.020, 46.44.030, 46.44.040), speed of vehicles (e.g., RCW 46.48.010), driving delinquencies (e.g., RCW 46.56.010), and rules of the road (e.g., RCW 46.60.060).  These laws apply specifically to "public highways."  On the other hand, RCW 46.52.030 is similar to RCW 46.28.010 (requiring the report of accidents within the purview of the financial responsibility act) in so far as it does not specifically distinguish between accidents occurring on public highways or elsewhere in the state.

            As pointed out in 5A Am. Jur. Automobiles and Highway Traffic, § 70:

            ". . . It has been said that the purpose of a statute requiring reports to be made to the police by operators of motor vehicles with respect to accidents involving their vehicles is to provide means whereby one injured or otherwise damaged may be given the opportunity to seek compensation."

            And, with reference to duties imposed on the operator of a motor vehicle which has been involved in an accident, 61 C.J.S. Motor Vehicles, § 674 (c) states:

            "Whether the place where the collision or injury involved occurs is within the operation of the statute depends on the terms of the statute.  Some statutes, either by reason of the fact that the particular statute governs the use of vehicles on public highways or by reason of express terms, apply only to collisions or accidents which occur on a street  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] or highway, but other statutes apply whether the offense is committed on a public highway, a private driveway, or other private property."

            Accordingly, it was held in Commonwealth v. Harris, 257 Mass. 434, 154 N.E. 180 (1921), that where an accident was not shown to have occurred on a "way" as that term was defined by statute, the defendant did not commit a crime in failing to stop and render aid following an accident where such duty was only required following accidents on "ways."

            Likewise, inState v. Smith, 66 Ariz. 376, 189 P. (2d) 205 (1948), it was held that an information which failed to allege that the accident occurred upon a highway failed to charge a crime under a statute requiring the operator of a vehicle to stop and render aid following an accident "upon the highways."

            It should be noted that in each of these cases the courts were merely applying criminal statutes according to their expressed terms.

            Notwithstanding the fact that the California statute applied inPeople v. Hoenschle, 132 Cal.App. 387 (1933), was, like our own, silent as to whether it applied on private property as well as public highways, the court there held an information charging failure to stop and render assistance following an accident defective in failing to allege that the defendant had operated the vehicle upon the public highway.  But this decision appears hardly reconcilable with the earlier case ofPeople v. Finley, 27 Cal. App. 291, 149 Pac. 779 (1915), and the later case ofPeople v. Stanley, 13 Cal.App. (2d) 559, 57 P. (2d) 146 (1936), in which it was held that an allegation that the accident occurred upon a public highway was not necessary to charge a crime.

            InSalazar v. State, 145 Tex. Cr. 478 [[145 Tex. Cr. R. 478]], 169 S.W. (2d) 169 (1943), it was held that the Texas statute which requires a motorist to stop and render aid following an accident:

            ". . . applies to an offense which it describes, whether the crime is committed on a public highway, a private drive, or one's individual property.  Within the State of Texas there are thousands of miles of private roadways, through ranch and forest and were at the time of the original enactment, upon which automobiles travel.  If it had been intended to apply the law only to public highways, undoubtedly the legislature would have so indicated, as it has specifically done in the case of drunk driving and numerous other offenses.  In the absence of some  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] restriction or of language which would make it apply to public highways alone, we may be assured that the legislature intended for the law to apply at any place where such collisions may occur."

            This decision has been followed in Mississippi (Meadows v. State, 211 Miss. 557, 52 So. (2d) 289 (1951), and in New HampshireState v. Gallagher, 102 N. H. 335, 156 A. (2d) 765 1959)).

            At least one of the purposes of our reporting statute (RCW 46.52.030, supra,) is to provide a "means whereby one injured or otherwise damaged may be given the opportunity to seek compensation (5A Am. Jur. Automobiles and Highway Traffic, § 70, supra; RCW 46.52.080, making such reports confidential except for the disclosure of "the identity of a person reported as involved in an accident when such identity is not otherwise known or when such person denies his presence at the accident.").  This purpose is manifestly better effectuated by requiring the reporting of all accidents occurring within the state, rather than those occurring solely on the public highways Moreover, had our legislature intended to limit the application of the reporting requirement to accidents occurring on public highways it would seem a simple matter for it to have sad so.  Instead, our legislature used broad terms embracing all accidents occurring within this state without regard to the place of occurrence.  Accordingly, we are reluctant to distinguish accidents occurring on private property from those occurring elsewhere in so far as the reporting requirement is concerned.

            It is our conclusion thatRCW 46.52.030, supra, is plain and unambiguous, devoid of uncertainty and is not open to an interpretation which would, by excluding accidents on private property, restrict the operation of the statute beyond its terms.

            We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

JOHN J. O'CONNELL
Attorney General

ROBERT J. HALL
Assistant Attorney General

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