SocietyApril 15, 2024

Flashing your lights to warn other drivers of a speed camera – is it legal?


The legal and moral debate around New Zealand’s best unofficial road rule.

If you’ve ever driven outside of a city centre, you’ll surely have seen it – the friendly flash of the headlights from an oncoming car. Most of the time it’s to let you know your headlights aren’t on when they should be. But in the middle of the day, on a long stretch of highway, it’s something quite specific – a warning to slow down. There’s a police car up ahead. Or a speed camera. Or a hazard. Whatever the case, you should check your speedo.

Driving around the North Island over Easter weekend, my partner and I encountered “the flash” several times. It got us wondering – is it legal to use this flash to warn others about a police car, or are you risking a fine yourself? If it’s legal, how moral is it? Are you just encouraging bad behaviour?

It’s pretty legal

My research started in the most obvious place – with the police. In a statement, a spokesperson confirmed that the practice is legal, but discouraged. “It may blind drivers or obstruct their vision. Every second on the road counts and one split moment can result in an accident.”

Alistair Haskett, a former truck driver turned Auckland-based lawyer, said this was a surprising concession. There are potential consequences under the Land Transport Act or Summary Offences Act, if police chose to go that route, he said.

“It’s not entirely straightforward – there are two offences which prohibit intentionally obstructing a police officer – or even the operation of a speed camera in the land transport law example,” he said. “That can include avoiding detection or making the execution of their duties more difficult. But it’s very contextual.”

A grainy Desert Road is perfect for a friendly flash of your headlights

Police would have a hard time ascertaining why any driver flashed their lights. “Unless there’s a fella silly enough to say, ‘yes, I was flashing my lights to warn that person to avoid detection by an upcoming police car’, it’d be pretty hard for police to prove,” he said.

“If police want to put their resources into that, that’s up to them. But this is low hanging fruit. And that’s likely reflected in them saying it’s legal, when in reality it’s arguable both ways.”

Some drivers won’t flash or tell

So the practice is unlikely to lead to a ticket, but how moral is it? For this part of my investigation, I polled 50 of my friends and family spanning up and down the country. Half of them said yes, they do flash their headlights, while 15 said they don’t. The rest said they used to, but don’t anymore.

“I used to partake, not too sure why, but perhaps it was part of the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality,” one said. “I used to flash them even when no police were around, just to make people behave,” another said. “But now I just let people get tickets.”

Kelly Fox, Ōtaki resident and admin behind a traffic update Facebook page covering the Horowhenua and Kāpiti, falls into this category as well. She said she doesn’t flash her lights at drivers any more – in her view, if you’re being an idiot on the road you probably deserve a ticket.

“When I was younger and a bit more irresponsible, I guess I was all for flashing people. But now I realise that anyone who slows down when I flash them will probably just speed back up again once the cop is gone.”

Caroline Perry, spokesperson for road safety group Brake, agreed. She said most drivers that see a flash of headlights are unlikely to slow down for long – whereas a ticket will sting for a longer period of time. “We focus on speed at Brake, and police do too, because whether or not speed is a causal factor in the crash, it will determine the outcome,” she says. “Speed will determine whether or not someone will be killed or seriously injured.”

AA’s driving school general manager, Roger Venn, said AA doesn’t condone the practice either. “The AA thinks the thing that will have a much bigger influence on road safety is having a high police presence on the roads.”

Plus, flashing headlights can mean a whole host of things in New Zealand. “The AA would prefer if drivers flashed their headlights to indicate hazards up ahead, such as debris or livestock on the road, which can serve as a reminder to oncoming traffic to slow down and be extra alert,” Venn added, ironically still promoting the flashing of lights to warn other drivers to slow down.

But Geoff Upson, an Auckland-based road safety campaigner, had a different perspective. He was all for flashing his lights at oncoming drivers to warn them of a waiting police car or speed camera, especially when he felt like the police were being a little unfair.

“Quite often they park where they know the speed limit feels a little lower than the comfortable speed to drive, or they make sure they’re hidden where it’s not easy to see.” In those situations, he says it’s fair game to balance the playing board a little.

And it’s particularly helpful in light of all the speed limit changes, he added. “Let’s say it’s a road [that] used to be 100km/h and you don’t notice you’ve sped up a little bit – it’s a quick reminder to check your speed and make sure you’re doing what you should before the policeman comes along.”

A dying courtesy

Upson reckons he’s seen a reduction in the practice in recent years. He thinks it’s possible the younger generation aren’t as across it. “Ten years ago, if there was a cop I could guarantee I’d been flashed three or four times already. Now quite often I won’t get any warning at all.”

Fox agrees fewer people are flashing their lights, but she attributes that to a reduced police presence. “I guess it has sort of died down in recent years, but that could purely be because there aren’t so many police visible on the roads. That’s definitely the case in the Horowhenua and Kāapiti, which is another issue altogether.”

And how about former truckie-turned-lawyer Alistair Haskett? He’s not letting anyone know why he flashes his lights. “Everyone has their own views on the practice,” he says coyly. “But some would say police shouldn’t be hiding behind bushes and pinging motorists for going 10km/hr over the limit. Take from that what you will.”

Keep going!