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Lawsuit: Flashing Headlights Should Be ‘Free Speech’

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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.

What do you think? Should flashing headlights to alert oncoming traffic of a speed trap be illegal?

13 Comments

  1. Is it really a speed trap? Trap? Considering the speed limit is posted (clearly, most likely) and we all know we’re supposed to drive at the speed limit?

    1. ChristopherManee Interesting point, Chris. If the speed limit is posted clearly, why, then, are there instances in which police try to conceal themselves so their presence isn’t obvious? Shouldn’t they always be out in the open to serve as one further “reminder”?
      How do you feel about the issue of flashing lights to alert other drivers? Good or bad?

  2. No, it should not be illegal. If it cannot be demonstrated that it somehow impair traffic safety, I don’t see any reason for prohibiting it. We shouldn’t have to try and think of reasons for allowing something, the burden of proof and evidence lies on the side of those seeking to make it illegal.
    I have to say, though, that “free speech” is being overused as an excuse to do whatever the hell you want to these days. There’s no way this enters the realm of the free speech defense in any way. This is a pet peeve of mine… Free speech is intended to protect citizen’s right to criticize their elected government through both freedom of the press and individual’s right to free speech. It isn’t meant to be the crutch everyone leans on whenever they want to act like an ass.

    1. msalakka I do agree with you on the overuse of “free speech.” I’m not sure warning other motorists of an upcoming police position qualifies as either “free speech” OR “acting like an ass.” I just think it shouldn’t be illegal regardless. 🙂

  3. mindycrary patricksplace oh I love the ? posed…safety or revenue? I always just say I did it bc I saw a deer. Wouldn’t work everywhere.

    1. femmefrugality mindycrary Ha! Good answer, but you’re right, that’s not an option for everyone.

  4. tedcoine patricksplace Somebody had nothing better to do than argue about this?

    1. AmySkalicky Oh, you’d be surprised. They not only argued, they’ve filed a class action about it!

      1. patricksplace Wow! What an incredibly costly distraction to more important tasks.

  5. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be legal.  As long as police are allowed to set up their speed traps and get people for 1-5 mph over the limit, we should be allowed to warn other drivers that are driving into it.  It’s not harming anybody, other than perhaps the police who now have to go out and do their jobs instead of setting up shop on a county road.
    I got pulled over for flashing my lights once, but not for a speed trap.  I had just started driving and it was one of the first few times I was out at night, so I was playing around with the high beam switch to see how it worked, the difference, etc.  I probably shouldn’t have been, but pulling me over for that was a bit much in my opinion.  I only got a written warning (but still documented), but still… that’s power abuse in my book.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.