Recently, legal decisions in Missouri and Oregon, along with a new bill in legislature in New Jersey, have once again thrust the issue of flashing our headlights back in the . . . spot . . . light.
In Missouri, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Autrey issued a preliminary injunction in February prohibiting the town of Ellisville from prosecuting drivers who allegedly flashed their vehicles’ head lights to warn of radar and speed traps. The city didn’t appeal the decision. Last week, Judge Autrey made that decision a permanent injunction.
“Expressive conduct is protected whenever a particular message is present and the likelihood is great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri in a statement issued about the case. “Even new drivers understand that an oncoming car with flashing headlights means they should either slow down, turn on their headlights, or otherwise use caution.”
Similarly, an Oregon man fought a $260 ticket last week for improperly using his head lights while driving a truck full of logs. Hill won his legal fight, and Hill acted as his own attorney in the proceeding. “The citation was clearly given to punish the Defendant for that expression,” the judge said in the case. “The government certainly can and should enforce the traffic laws for the safety of all drivers on the road. However, the government cannot enforce the traffic laws, or any other laws, to punish drivers for their expressive conduct.”
In New Jersey, The Daily Journal reports the issue this way: “It’s a longstanding tradition on the open road: You see a police car tucked away from view, and you flash your headlights at oncoming motorists to warn them of a speed trap and spare them the trouble of a getting a ticket. Police don’t look at the gesture favorably, but efforts are underway to make this driver warning system legal.”
New Jersey Assemblyman Ronald S. Dancer introduced a bill last month that would make the practice of flashing high-beams at oncoming motorists permissible. “Flashing of headlights is a universal symbol to slow down,” Dancer, R-Monmouth, said. “Flashing headlights could warn motorists of speed traps, accidents, deer in the roadway, ice or other road hazards, with the slowing of traffic as the ultimate result,” Dancer said.
“Motorists should not be fearful of being ticketed for improving road safety,” he said. “However, if tickets are being issued for blinking the lights, frankly, that is an overly aggressive tactic to preserve the flow of easy money from speed traps. The goal should be safe roads and highways, not a money grab for municipal treasuries.” Dancer, whose bill has been referred to the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, maintains the activity is a form of communication that is constitutionally protected.
In Georgia, it is a crime to fail to dim your headlights when approaching motorists in the opposite direction or following another car. But nothing in the law prohibits warning motorists of danger, include police, ahead by flashing your high beams. Here is the statute:
40-8-31. Use of multiple-beam road lighting equipment
Whenever a motor vehicle is being operated on a roadway or shoulder adjacent thereto during the times specified in Code Section 40-8-20, the driver shall use a distribution of light, or composite beam, directed high enough and of sufficient intensity to reveal persons and vehicles at a safe distance in advance of the vehicle, subject to the following requirements and limitations:
(1) Whenever a driver of a vehicle approaches an oncoming vehicle within 500 feet, such driver shall use a distribution of light, or composite beam, so aimed that the glaring rays are not projected into the eyes of the oncoming driver. The lowermost distribution of light, or composite beam, specified in paragraph (2) of Code Section 40-8-30 shall be deemed to avoid glare at all times, regardless of road contour and loading; and
(2) Whenever the driver of a vehicle follows another vehicle within 200 feet to the rear, except when engaged in the act of overtaking and passing, such driver shall use a distribution of light permissible under this chapter other than the uppermost distribution of light specified in paragraph (1) of Code Section 40-8-30.
So if you find yourself driving through The Peach State, and you become aware of a police presence, such as a DUI roadblock, a traffic accident, a cop running radar, or any other danger ahead that you want to warn your fellow motorists about, flash those high beams all you like!