To flash or not to flash?

10.47 | 16 February 2011 | | 4 comments

Nearly half of drivers flash their lights to warn other drivers of speed checks, according to an IAM poll of more than 4800 motorists.

The poll followed the recent prosecution of a driver who was fined £175 and ordered to pay £250 costs after warning approaching cars of a speed check. Nearly 70% of respondents to the IAM poll said that a driver should not be prosecuted for warning others, while 21% believe they should.

Peter Rodger, IAM chief examiner, said: “The biggest reason for not flashing to warn of a speed check is safety, with ‘drivers who speed deserve to be caught and fined’ and ‘the meaning of the flash could be misinterpreted’, each polling a third of the votes from those who don’t flash.

“However, safety was also used as a major justification for those who do flash to warn of speed checks, with nearly 20% saying they ‘wanted to avoid a possible collision when drivers see the speed check late and brake harshly in response’.”

The poll also found that nearly 35% of respondents say they use their lights to tell other drivers they are giving way to them, and 30% use them to thank another driver for giving way to them. Less than 10% of drivers said that they don’t flash at all.

Nearly 45% of drivers feel that the Highway Code should contain a standardised code of what flashes mean, as there could be confusion as to what message people are trying to get across.

For more information contact the IAM Press Office on 020 8996 9777.


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    A well understood, although apparently ‘illegal’, reason for flashing headlights at an oncoming car is to say “Beware of a hazard ahead of you”.

    eg I have noticed an increase in cyclists using narrow twisty lanes and the potential for an accident is clear. If I pass a cyclist going the other way, I may flash my lights at the next oncoming driver so that they may be better prepared to slow or stop.

    And the same goes for a walker where there is no pavement, or where they appear drunk or other hazards.

    It is possible that the above ‘illegal’ actions by many drivers prevent many accidents, especially to vulnerable road users.

    If prosecutions, such as in the article, lead to less of this considerate behavour, then that could lead to a greater number of accidents with pedestrians and cyclists. In such cases the law and it’s enforcement would then become a contributory factor in those accidents.

    In Britain we used to have laws which the vast majority obeyed the “spirit” of, and then broke where there was no need for the law. But over many years our authorities have forced Britain towards the American idea that the law is the law and it must be obeyed irrespective. This appoach often appears to fail to achieve the intended benefit whilst also seeming to lead to more intolerance, loss of respect for authority and the most unjust outcomes.

    Be careful what you wish for!

    Dave Finney, Slough
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    Flashing drivers to warn of a speed check can certainly be misinterpreted and a distraction and, in extreme, can impact safety. But such behaviour is one of the numerous damaging unwanted side effects of speed enforcement.
    The late Paul Smith identified 40 such negative side effects – this appears to be #41.

    Eric Bridgstock
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    Well said.

    If people had read the highway code they would know there is only one reason to flash their headlights. When they passed their test they signed an agreement to keep informed of the rules in the highway code. This constant use of flashing headlights to convey greetings to drivers or pedestrians in the road, or to suggest
    they will give way has meant that using the headlights to warn others of your presence is no longer effective. This creates great danger on the motorways when your horn cannot be heard, so you use flashing headlights to warn the driver you are there and they should not pull out into your lane. They take it as an invitation to do just that. It is part of our culture now and would not be easily changed I therefor feel its use should be considered carefully if you actually want to warn someone of your presence.

    S.Jacob, Somerset
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    How many of the “nearly 45% of drivers” who “feel that the Highway Code should contain a standardised code of what flashes mean” have actually read rules 110 and 111 on page 36 of the Highway Code?
    Rule 110; “Only flash your headlights to let other road users know that you are there. Do not flash your headlights to convey any other message or intimidate other road users.”
    Of course, the real world is very different place so we have rule 111: “Never assume that flashing headlights is a signal inviting you to proceed. Use your own judgement and proceed carefully.”
    How much more standardised or clear do these people want it to be?
    I would add that if we use rule 110 and flash to let others know we are there, they will probably pull out on us anyway. An added argument not to flash at all.

    David Clark, North Yorkshire
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