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Proper use of 4-way flashers revisited

A regular reader of these traffic safety articles recently contacted me to ask about the use of the four-way hazard lights on vehicles when driving in snow and/or fog. His gripe was that a driver he was following was driving with his/her hazard lights flashing — since these lights are quite bright, it was annoying to him or any driver following.

So, here is the legal version. Article 1163 (e) of NYS Vehicle and Traffic Law explains the proper usage. There are basically three situations where the hazard lights must or should be used.

When the vehicle is stopped or disabled on a public highway, except when stopped in compliance with a traffic control device (i.e. a red traffic light) or when legally parked. This means, for example, if you stop along the side of a road to make a cell phone call, you must use your hazard lights, not your right turn signal.

You may use your hazard lights to warn vehicles following your vehicle of the presence of a traffic hazard ahead. An example of this situation could be a deer in the road ahead, or perhaps a flagman stopping vehicles traveling in your direction.

The only other situation where hazard lights may be legally used is to warn other drivers that your vehicle itself may constitute a traffic hazard. An example of this might be if you had a flat tire and you were proceeding slowly for a short distance to where you could pull off the roadway. Another example that you see quite often is a tractor trailer truck climbing a long hill on any roadway including expressways, where the truck is traveling significantly slower than other traffic.

VTL prohibits hazard lights being used for any other purpose. But, no law can be written to include every possible situation. That is why enforcement officers and judges are given leeway when enforcing our laws. For instance, couldn’t #3 above be considered a valid reason for driving along with flashers on when visibility due to snow or fog is reduced? Well, maybe.

As I have written many times previously, there is no book that can describe what to do in every situation — being a good driver is learned from experience. So, back to the reader’s complaint — following a vehicle with hazard lights flashing is annoying.

Let’s look at this situation from the viewpoint of the driver in the vehicle with the hazard lights flashing. This driver doesn’t want to be rear-ended, thus the hazard signals. But is he driving much slower than other traffic? Should this driver even be driving in these conditions? Should anyone be driving in these conditions? It boils down to driver experience and how he/she should drive given the existing conditions.

It certainly wouldn’t be prudent to drive with hazards flashing in a light snowstorm, nor would it be prudent to stop in the middle of a highway without your hazard lights on. My thoughts for a compromise — if you feel the need to have them on, how about turning them off as soon as another vehicle has caught up to your vehicle. He knows you are there and he is now the last vehicle and it’s his turn to warn others.