Q: Is it legal for a car manufacturer to show a car doing an illegal driving maneuver in a commercial?
A: It depends on which illegal driving maneuver you’re talking about. There is a law that prohibits the advertisement of speeding on public roads, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First I’d like to touch on a broader topic that your question brings up. It seems like there’s an arms race going on between car manufacturers, but instead of firepower, they’re competing on horsepower (which generally translates into speed).
I’m going to pick on Dodge and their ambition to build some of the most ridiculous street legal cars on the market. Starting with the Dodge Viper back in 1992, they have built cars that appear as if their entire purpose is to violate the law. Reviews of the early Viper describe it as “fast, brutal and crude.” The car had no roof and no side windows. The engine was so big that it took up the space where the gas pedal should have been, so the designers had to move the pedals over to the left. The car had a remarkable, at the time, 400 horsepower and a top speed of 164 MPH.
Fast forward to October 12, 2017. In Houston, Texas, a 25-year-old man stole a Dodge Challenger Hellcat and outran the police for 90 miles at speeds estimated at up to 130 MPH. The police didn’t catch him during the pursuit; the chase ended when the Challenger ran out of gas. At 707 horsepower and capable of 200 MPH, this Challenger makes the 1992 Viper’s 400 HP almost seem quaint. And the Hellcat is only second place in the Challenger lineup. On their website, Dodge advertises the Challenger Demon at 840 horsepower, the most horsepower of any production car, and the first production car capable of doing a wheelie. In what universe is the ability to do a wheelie an important factor in deciding which car you want to drive to work every day?
I could have picked on plenty of other car manufacturers, because by the time you read this it’s possible that Ford or Chevy or Porsche or BMW will have built a car with more power than the Challenger. The point is, performance cars are being advertised and sold by highlighting features that a driver can’t legally enjoy. When drivers, influenced by this arms race, chose speed over safety, we get the results you’d expect. If you don’t know what I mean, just Google “Hellcat crashes”.
Now, back to the original question. The Revised Code of Washington states that it is unlawful for anyone (manufacturer, dealer, distributor, firm, corporation or person) to publish or advertise the speed attained by a vehicle on a public road when that speed is over the posted speed limit. For example, Chevy couldn’t advertise that the new Corvette can average 90 MPH on Mount Baker Highway from Glacier to Artist Point. Interestingly, I think this law could also apply to an individual selling a used car. If you put an ad on Craigslist and said you had no trouble getting your Mustang GT to 100 MPH on Hannegan Road, you might have violated this law. I say “might” because I’m not a legal expert and it’s possible that a judge would disagree with me; give the law a read and see what you think.
I can’t find a law that prohibits advertising other illegal maneuvers, but then I can’t think of a reason why a manufacturer would want to. Can you imagine a car company promoting that their car is the best for tailgating, or that it easily makes left turns without signaling? No, me either. Oh, wait a minute. The Dodge Challenger Demon is advertised as capable of doing a wheelie, which would probably get you a ticket for reckless or at least negligent driving, or maybe “driving with wheels off roadway”. (That law is intended to prevent people from driving on the shoulder; using it for wheelies would be a first.) For some reason though, advertising the ability to exceed the speed limit is an effecting selling tool.
Actually, I know the reason; I’ve driven a performance car on a race track, and it’s fun. Really fun. But on public roads, speed is one of the top contributing factors to traffic fatalities in Washington. If we want to end serious and fatal crashes on our roads, a big part of the solution is choosing to drive at an appropriate speed, no matter how much horsepower is available.