Yes, you can sleep in your car at a rest area.
Rest areas are intended specifically to “combat driver fatigue”. This phrase is used commonly from state to state to define the primary purpose of rest areas. The reason why states use this phrase is to discourage driver’s from using rest areas for recreational purposes.
Can You Sleep in Your Car at a Rest Area?
Even though each state is different, they all are in agreement that rest areas are intended to “combat driver fatigue”, and encourage driver’s to rest well enough to get back on the road safely. While no state specifically endorses sleeping, no state specifically prohibits sleeping either.
In order for a law enforcement officer to cite you for sleeping in your car at a rest area, there has to be a law against it. And after examining the laws and rules of every state, with respect to rest areas, there are no laws against sleeping in your car at a rest area.
Should a law enforcement officer knock on your window, tell him or her that you are very tired, and that you need this moment to close your eyes and rest long enough to get back on the road safely. By the same token, you should make it clearly evident that you are indeed resting, and not looking like you’re having fun.
Overnight Parking versus Overnight Camping
Many states have prohibited “overnight parking” and/or “overnight camping” at their rest areas. But that still doesn’t mean that sleeping in your car at a rest area is prohibited.
Keep in mind that all rest areas are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is completely fine to pull into a rest area at night, and sleep in your car long enough to rest and return to driving.
Where states have prohibited “overnight parking” or “overnight camping” they are referring to people using rest areas for purposes beyond “combating driver fatigue”. This could include staying well after you’ve already rested, or taking extra time to cook breakfast and participate in conference calls.
Camping is generally defined by states as being recreational. Hence, recreational use of rest areas are prohibited. Law enforcement officers would have to look for evidence that you’re enjoying your stay at a rest area, perhaps by noticing that you’ve put out slides on your RV, set up patio chairs and tables, playing music outside, etc. As long as you’re just parking your car or RV, staying inside, and not looking like you’re having fun, you’ll be fine to sleep overnight.
States Have Time Limits on How Long You Can Stay
Most states have adopted rules or laws limiting how long you can stay at a rest area. Some states, however, still have not adopted any such limits.
The majority of states generally adopt time limits ranging from 8 hours to 12 hours. South Dakota goes as short as 3 hours, while Idaho goes as long as 16 hours on certain highways. States like Arizona and Utah have no time limits at all.
Hence, if a rest area allows you to stay for 12 hours, and you need all 12 hours to sleep, rest, and get back on the road safely, then you’re fine to do so, even if its during night time hours.
Law Enforcement Officers Rarely Kick People Out
It’s rare for highway patrol officers to kick someone out for staying too long at a rest area.
Officers do not keep log books of everyone who pulled into a rest area with their dates and times. Moreover, people who have extended their stay at rest areas are not considered a threat to public safety. However, highway patrol officers do pull into rest areas at least once a day during their patrols, and eventually will take notice if your vehicle has been parked in the same space for three or four days.
As long as you don’t remain parked for more than 24 hours, you’re generally fine to remain at a rest area. Just make sure you don’t make excessive noise, draw attention to yourself, or make it clear you’re having a party.