A lawsuit is targeting laws that prohibit flashing your headlights to alert other drivers to the presence of speed traps. Should this be free speech protected by the First Amendment?
A Missouri driver who warned fellow drivers of an upcoming speed trap wound up facing an obstruction of justice charge and a $1,000 fine.
You read that right: one thousand bucks!
He didn’t pay. In fact, he fought the charge, claiming that he had every right to flash his headlights because doing so was merely a case of him exercising his right to free speech. As hard as it may be to believe, prosecutors dropped the charges.
By now, I’m sure you know that there’s more to this story.
In fact, it gets interesting because of the American Civil Liberties Union, which heard about the case and filed a class action against the city for issuing the tickets in the first place.
Depending on where you live (check out the note about which states have passed laws that forbid flashing lights to warn motorists here), it may be illegal.
The real question is whether it should be illegal.
If alerting a driver who is obviously driving too fast is illegal, then shouldn’t blowing a horn at someone be illegal, too? And for that matter, any other action a driver can take to try to make a fellow motorist behave himself?
As one commenter pointed out in the linked article above, it comes down to this: is a speed trap designed to raise revenue or make roads safer? The answer is important, after all. If a speed trap’s purpose is really to raise revenue, then I can see why law enforcement officers would have a problem with motorists “blowing their cover.”
But if it’s really about safety — and it should always be about safety — that warning that gets someone to slow down may prevent an accident that might otherwise happen before the speeding motorist even reaches the range of the police officer’s radar gun. And if that happens only one time, how can we put a price, much less a fine and criminal charges, on that?
I must admit that there’s something comforting (in a demented sort of way) about the thought of a speeder getting caught in the act. Especially for someone like me, who generally hits cruise control at 4 miles over the posted speed limit and routinely gets passed on all sides as if he’s not moving at all.
Still, where does a driver’s responsibility begin and end?
If we see motorists on the road who may be drunk, we’re supposed to call police to report what we’ve seen. Why is that? I know our motive in reporting a suspicious driver would be in trying to prevent an accident. But what is law enforcement’s motive in asking us to call? To make roads safer or to score a DUI ticket?
If their true motive — or at least the primary one — isn’t to make the roads safer, they’re doing it wrong.