It’s a common practice on U.S. roads for drivers who pass a speed trap to flash their lights at oncoming traffic and warn them of a police presence ahead. It’s also common to hear that this “courtesy” is actually illegal and can land you with a traffic ticket if you’re caught.
Drivers flash their headlights for a number of reasons. It can be used to warn another driver about a safety hazard with their vehicle, such as not having their headlights turned on at night or keeping their highbeams on when coming up on another vehicle. Flashing headlights may also be used to signal passing or to yield the right of way. Sometimes flashing headlights are employed by aggressive drivers to tell slower moving vehicles to move out of the way or to berate drivers for poor driving.
When it comes to whether or not your headlights can be used to warn others about police, the law varies by state. In Texas, for instance, there aren’t any laws forbidding the practice and drivers are free to communicate with their headlights as they please.
The Florida Case
In Florida, on the other hand, flashing your headlight was heavily ticked until only a few years ago when a driver took the issue to court.
Erich Campbell was driving on Veterans Expressway in Tampa in 2009 when he saw two highway patrol officers parked in a median and began flashing his lights to warn fellow drivers of the police presence. The officers didn’t appreciate the gesture and ticketed him for “improper flashing of high-beams. Campbell filed a class action lawsuit alleging that no such law existed in Florida and that every driver who had been ticketed for flashing their headlights ought to receive compensation for their fines. Soon after the lawsuit was filed, the Florida Highway Patrol instructed its officers to discontinue ticketing for the practice.
This past December, the Florida State Legislature effectively sealed the case shut when it passed a bill saying that Florida drivers could flick their headlights, even if it was to warn other drivers of police.
Laws in Other States
Other states have similar rules to Florida. In New Jersey, a state court ruled that flashing your high-beams did not violate a state statute limiting how far headlights may project. Likewise, in New York courts have ruled that flashing your headlights doesn’t violate a state law which prohibits operating headlights in a distracting manner.
In Arizona and North Dakota, on the other hand, state laws are different. North Dakota prohibits flashing high-beams for any reason when an oncoming vehicle is within 500 feet. Arizona, meanwhile, says that flashing your lights is a violation of its statue requiring motorists to dim high-beams when approaching another vehicle.
In the end, it’s best to be careful when you flash your lights at other drivers. If your state allows the practice, warning others about speed traps will win you some points with your fellow drivers. If your state doesn’t allow the practice, however, this courtesy is performed at your own risk. If you don’t know, it’s probably best to stay neutral and keep your lights right where they are.
Jason McMinn is a personal injury and criminal defense attorney at The McMinn Law Firm in Austin, Texas. The Austin personal injury attorneys at the firm try a variety of cases, including truck accidents, slip and fall accidents and wrongful death claims.