Tag Archives: high beams

High beams in other drivers’ eyes can get you a ticket

The in basket: Bremertonian Mark Henson e-mailed an interesting anecdote to Sun reporter Josh Farley, who figured it to be Road Warrior fodder and forwarded it to me.

Mark said he was driving on Highway 303 April 13 around 7 p.m.  “It was a grey afternoon with a dull sky, with wipers on low,” he said. “I noticed a white car heading northbound without its headlights on, I did what I am accustomed to do when I see a car heading towards me without their lights on . .  I remind them by giving them a quick ‘flash’ of  my high beams as a gentle reminder that their lights are off.”

He didn’t realize it was a State Patrol car until moments later, when it went past, then turned around and stopped him.

“He asked me why I flashed my high beams at him. I (told) him that his headlights were not on. He said, ‘I don’t have to.'”

Mark was of the opposite opinion, relying on state law RCW 46.37.020 that says when headlights must be on, including “when, due to insufficient light or unfavorable atmospheric conditions, persons and vehicles on the highway are not clearly discernible at a distance of 1,000 feet ahead.” Otherwise, it’s from a half-hour past sunset to a half-hour before sunrise.

“I began to explain that it was inclement weather and it was beginning to get dark,” Mark said, “and he reiterated the RCW and then mentioned that ‘flashing’ one’s high beams is against the law. He (said) ‘I’m not going to give you a ticket NOW, but  . .  .  please drive safely.’

“I tried to tell him that the inclement weather conditions are covered under the same RCW that he quoted, but I think he was more unhappy with the fact that I gave him a reminder that his headlights were off.

“I would like to hear your comments!” Mark concluded.

The out basket: I did have some comments, but chose to share them privately with my State Patrol contact, Trooper Russ Winger.

For public consumption, I asked if it’s really illegal to flash your brights at a car without its headlights on at night, and if so, what does the state patrol recommend to alert a driver that his lights are off? And how about when you meet a car with its lights steadily on bright?

I have flashed such drivers many times in 50-plus years of driving and have been flashed for the same reason. I have appreciated the gesture since I first realized what it meant.

I’ve found that it takes less of my attention off driving to flash my brights than to turn my lights off-on-off-on for that purpose.

Russ told me, yes, “it’s illegal to shine high beams in another motorists eyes,” even for a brief moment as a warning or reprimand.

“‎Conditions; light, rain etc. other than legal times are subjective to interpretation and the WSP feels that it is not a good idea for motorists to interpret the law and single out other motorists for corrective ‘hints,’ however well intended. Flashing high beams at the wrong person at the wrong time just might lead to an altercation.

“Can you be stopped for (flashing your brights), yes. Will you be cited, maybe but not likely.

“Motorists typically forget to turn lights on in town where there is plenty of lighting and they have just entered the roadway from a parking lot or such. Very rarely do you see a vehicle driving down the road without lights in pitch dark conditions.

“I think if a driver feels absolutely compelled to ‘do something’ when a motorist forgets to turn on the headlamps, the quick on/off of the low beams usually does the trick, provided the driver doesn’t have to look down in search of the light switch. If you cannot operate your vehicle’s light switch without fumbling around in the dark, let it go. Someone else will probably do it if the driver doesn’t just figure it out themselves and turn them on first.

“Another option is to give us a call and report the driver if one thinks that it is possibly dangerous. We might have a trooper or another officer in the area that can look for the vehicle and stop it.

“DUI drivers sometimes fail to turn their lights on and will also leave the high beams on and not respond to the old on/off method to alert them. We will happily stop this vehicle when possible and have a quick chat with the driver and make sure everything is squared away.”

How about flashing your brights irritably?

The in basket: Mason Mathews read in a previous Road Warrior column that honking one’s horn in frustration or anger, rather than to alert others to a danger, is illegal and commented, “Interesting. Is flashing your brights in these situations also illegal?  Or are they only to be used for visibility when no traffic is in front?”

The out basket: Going briefly to high beams to get a driver ahead to move, move faster or move over isn’t as expressly illegal as honking for that purpose, but there is a law an officer could use to cite for it.

Trooper Russ Winger of the State Patrol here says RCW 46.37.230 says, “Whenever the driver of a vehicle approaches another vehicle from the rear within 300 feet such driver shall use a distribution of light permissible under this chapter other than the uppermost distribution of light.” That means high beams  are not to be used when close behind another vehicle, though I imagine that law contemplates continuous use of the high beans, rather than flashing them.

Russ said that law “gives a framework for officers to use to enforce these type of actions. Is it a good idea to flash your high-beam lamps at other motorists?” he asked. “Not really. Is it legal? Not really.”

He goes on to say, “The WSP gets calls quite often from motorists calling in complaints about vehicles following too closely, flashing head lamps at them (presumably to get them to change lanes), sometimes honking the horn. These fall into the ‘aggressive driver’ and ‘road rage’ categories and as such the patrol discourages any of this type of behavior. In fact, our officers specifically seek out this type of driver behavior due to the potential dangers that they promote for all motorists.

“Patience, courtesy and common sense are not actual RCW’s, but they probably promote highway safety better than many actual laws,” Russ said.

So aggressive honking or flashing your lights at the very least can attract the attention of traffic officers who may follow you to watch for more dangerous behavior, like excessive speed, tailgating and risky lane changes.

I guess that just leaves turning your headlights off and then on again quickly, such as we do when we see a car approaching at night without its headlights on.