Flicking brights as signal to other driver?
October 25, 2018 5:55 AM   Subscribe

When I was a kid (in the Midwest) my dad would flick his brights/high beams on and off at an oncoming car to signal to them that they were driving with their lights off when driving at night. More often than not, the oncoming car would then turn their lights on. I have adopted this habit (on the East Coast) and it doesn’t work. Is this a regional thing? If someone flashed their brights at you, would you know what it meant? Should I stop doing this?
posted by coppermoss to Travel & Transportation (62 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Around New England, flashing the high beams means one of two things:

Car approaching you - there is a cop ahead, slow down
Car behind you - you are moving too slow and I want you to change lanes to get out of my way

Whether you should stop doing it or not, I don't know. I generally interpret the signal as aggressive - again, this being New England, any sign of communication from another driver is usually aggressive.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:59 AM on October 25, 2018 [17 favorites]


I grew up on the East Coast and learned to do it, and it was effective. I still live on the East Coast, and when I do it now, nothing happens. Which is an issue, because it seems like people don't realize their high beams blind oncoming drivers...
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:59 AM on October 25, 2018 [11 favorites]


I use flick brights to signal their lights off, their lights on brights or sometimes as a warning. (ie an accident up the road). Who knows if anyone gets it, but hey I like old timey courtesies.
posted by Ftsqg at 6:00 AM on October 25, 2018 [25 favorites]


I grew up in the Midwest in the 60s and would know what it meant.

However, in the 80s, there was a very common urban legend that gangs used this in initiations. The idea was that gang members would drive with their lights off, and if someone flashed their lights at them, they would follow those people home and kill them. This was widely believed - I believed it - and I think a lot of people stopped flashing their lights. I certainly did. So that might have reduced the number of people doing it and eventually, knowing what it meant.
posted by FencingGal at 6:04 AM on October 25, 2018 [22 favorites]


I would think you might be saying that
•there was a speed trap ahead
•my high beams were on
•my lights are off
•you don’t like something about my driving, and are some kind of asshole
•you had actually just hit a bump in the road making it appear that you were flashing your lights
(Ontario, Canada)
posted by rodlymight at 6:05 AM on October 25, 2018 [71 favorites]


From New England, now live in western PA. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
posted by Seeking Direction at 6:07 AM on October 25, 2018


I once got flashed when my brakes were on fire, so I think it means “hey, check yourself.”
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:08 AM on October 25, 2018 [47 favorites]


All over Australia, two quick flicks of the high beams at an oncoming car are pretty much always understood to mean "I've recently passed a hazard that you will soon encounter" - usually a parked cop but sometimes an animal wandering on or near the road.

A long single flick at an oncoming car usually means "your lights are blinding me" or "your lights need to be on but are not".

A short flick at the rear of the truck that's just overtaken means it's now far enough ahead to make it safe to pull back in. Any other use of high beam behind another vehicle marks you as an arsehole who got their licence off the back of a cereal box.
posted by flabdablet at 6:10 AM on October 25, 2018 [23 favorites]


I have adopted this habit (on the East Coast) and it doesn’t work.

It is standard for check your headlights most places but a lot of people are really oblivious.
posted by Candleman at 6:14 AM on October 25, 2018 [12 favorites]


If the car flashing their high beams/lights is right on me then I figure they want me to get out of their way. Otherwise they're trying to tell me something about my car or that there's a cop nearby. (Ontario, Canada)
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:14 AM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


Pennsylvania driver's manual says that flicking high beams is a signal: "If a vehicle using high beams comes toward you, flash your high beams quickly a few times. If the driver does not dim his/her lights, look toward the right side of the road."

I use the one-flick maneuver as a warning--your lights are off, your lights are on high, be alert for an upcoming hazard.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:14 AM on October 25, 2018 [12 favorites]


Flicking high beams just means "I'd like to get your attention about something." Everything else is situational. Here in Pittsburgh, they're often used to signal to the person opposing you at an intersection that they're good to take a Pittsburgh Left. But it can also mean "your lights aren't on" or "something is blatantly wrong with your car" or "I just passed something dangerous up ahead, be aware".

But if people drive around oblivious, it's not going to work.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:15 AM on October 25, 2018 [12 favorites]


I live in the Norteastern part of the US, and I've been doing this my whole life to get the driver's attention. When people are driving toward me with their lights off, or when they have their highbeams on, I find that they respond appropriately about half the time. It's hard to say what happens to the other half, because they pass me within a few seconds. Some of them probably react slower, and some are probably just clueless and do nothing.
posted by akk2014 at 6:26 AM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


Yes, in the UK that's one meaning, as well as caution, hazard / police up ahead.
posted by JonB at 6:27 AM on October 25, 2018


In the UK this can also mean you want to thank the other driver (e.g. for pulling over to let you past) but it's winter and too dark for them to see you wave your hand to thank them, which is the usual gesture.

If you're both actively driving and no one has pulled over, it generally either means that your lights are on full beam or not on at all. I think we're slightly more likely to use hazard lights to warn other road users of an upcoming hazard or slowdown; I don't see people using flicking their beams to mean that here much.
posted by terretu at 6:39 AM on October 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


I grew up in the midwest, and I now live in Ohio. My first thought when seeing another car do this is "hmm, are my lights off?". But assigning any sort of predictability to New England driving is a fool's errand. Besides, everyone in New England is perfect and never makes mistakes, and even if they did, who the hell are you to tell them? Huh?

Funny story about the gang thing: One time I was driving a rental car just before dusk, and a car with four young black men pulled up alongside me. Pretty much the caricature that a racist old Fox News viewer would draw of a car full of young black men: big, muscular dudes in puffer jackets, bass booming, smoke billowing out the windows. So they pull up alongside me and the dude in the front passenger seat starts trying really hard to get my attention. I'm a little worried, but I grew up in the hood, so I rolled down my window. Guy just says "yo, your headlights aren't on". It being a rental car, I wasn't used to operating it, and I didn't turn on the lights correctly. Not really applicable to this question, but I get a kick out of it in light of the urban legend about gangs and headlights.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:41 AM on October 25, 2018 [21 favorites]


I do this regularly in Austin, Texas, and not one person has realized it means "turn your lights on, fucker." I keep trying and it keeps not working. Have fun getting pulled over for not having your lights on, I guess.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:43 AM on October 25, 2018 [8 favorites]


I agree that "flashing headlights" generally means "check your headlights" or "speed trap coming your way".

I believe this so much that once, as a pedestrian, I saw that a car was leaving a well-lit parking lot at night without its headlights on. As I stood on the corner while they waited for the light, I held out my hands as fists, and then "flashed" them-- open palms, fingers spread, then clenched back as fists.

Reader, the driver turned their headlights on.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:44 AM on October 25, 2018 [76 favorites]


In Massachusetts (as opposed to Chicago, Michigan, Alabama, or other places I've lived/driven), people seem to flash their headlights more often, for a wider variety of things. Not just "cops ahead" or "your headlights are [off/brights]" or "your rear van doors are open" (as in the midwest) but also "I'm yielding right-of-way to you" and "get the f out of my way" (no way those 2 can be confusing!) and they pay less attention to other people doing so, possibly because it's harder to interpret, but also because the roads are crappy and full of potholes, and it's very hard to tell the difference between an oncoming car flickering their brights and an oncoming car going over a series of bumps that intermittently point the beams directly at you.

So yes, keep trying to communicate, no one will mind and some will be grateful, but many will be oblivious, and that's just the way it is.
posted by aimedwander at 6:59 AM on October 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


Ftsqg: "I use flick brights to signal their lights off, their lights on brights or sometimes as a warning. (ie an accident up the road). Who knows if anyone gets it, but hey I like old timey courtesies."

This is my use as well. A couple light flicks to an approaching car means something needs attention.
posted by Mitheral at 7:15 AM on October 25, 2018


Grew up in Maryland in the 1980s. Definitely would interpret a headlight flash as "check yourself" -- could mean my brights are on, could mean my hazards are on, could mean my headlights are off.
posted by escabeche at 7:19 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Just my experience: In my over 40 years of driving, I have always signaled that someone's lights were off by turning mine quickly off, then on. My dad or brother taught me that. (Raised in Detroit.)
posted by The Deej at 7:19 AM on October 25, 2018 [13 favorites]


Oncoming car, Pay attention - lights should be on, hazard ahead, etc.
Car ahead, The light changed, you're using 2 lanes, it wasn't okay for you to cut in or otherwise drive like a jerk.
I try to reserve the horn for things like yesterday You didn't have room, you cut me off, and if the road was a bit slicker, we'd have been exchanging insurance info.

When people flick lights at me, I check my lights and my speed.

Some years ago when I traveled, it seemed that European cities had banned horns and lights were used as a substitute. Foreign-made cars had the brights toggle on the stalk, US-made cars didn't get that for several more years. We used to turn lights off, then on, to remind drivers their lights were off. Now I am a person who talks about teh olden days.
posted by theora55 at 7:20 AM on October 25, 2018


As per previously:

When I flash my brights, I intend to communicate one of three things.
  1. slow down, hazard ahead
  2. it's dark, turn your headlights on
  3. turn your bloody high beams off, you idiot

posted by zamboni at 7:25 AM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


I've flicked lights to indicate "your brights are on and shining in my face". if I were to see someone flash their lights at me, I would interpret it that way as well - and I suspect that if I didn't have my lights on in the first place, I'd be a little annoyed that "jeez, dude, my lights AREN'T in your face, don't yell at me."

I mean, I'd be a jerk, but I'm ashamed to admit that'd probably be my thought.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:25 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Yeah I take it as a general "check that everything is as it ought to be and also there might be a cop or hazard ahead" signal, and if someone behind me flicked them I'd probably pull off to check that my brake lights were working and nothing was hanging out of the trunk or on the roof. Depending on the order in which I checked things, you might not see my lights go on until after I'd passed you.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:27 AM on October 25, 2018


Addendum:

4. One of your headlights is out.
posted by zamboni at 7:28 AM on October 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


High beam flick: cops ahead
Lights off and on: turn your headlights on
posted by tristeza at 7:45 AM on October 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I grew up in the northeast as well, and in Northern New Jersey, that was the accepted signal for "cop up ahead waiting to give you a ticket," if it was done during the day. Flashing the brights at night meant "You high beams are in my face."
posted by holborne at 7:52 AM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


In the UK this can also mean you want to thank the other driver (e.g. for pulling over to let you past) but it's winter and too dark for them to see you wave your hand to thank them, which is the usual gesture.

The most common UK usage is "after you" at a junction where there's no obvious priority, or if someone's backing out of a drive or pulling out of a parking space. It's "I acknowledge the thing you are doing and will not get in your way while you do it."

Where I am in the US, it can mean "your main beams are on" or "you've got a broken light" or "something's up ahead". That's more typical on two-lane unlit roads. On freeways, there's the whole thing with big trucks -- truck signals to change into your lane, you flash the main beams to indicate there's enough space and will maintain position, truck moves over and blinks a thank-you.
posted by holgate at 8:01 AM on October 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


tl;dr all of the areas where British usage differs from the US are fundamentally about politeness. Such national stereotype, wow.
posted by terretu at 8:06 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Regarding non-responsiveness to this signal by drivers in cars without their lights on, nowadays most cars have an "automatic" feature that manages the headlights. So many people never worry about their lights anymore at all, since there's seldom a problem unless the switch gets flicked inadvertently. Consequently, drivers may think you're communicating something else, e.g., cops ahead.
posted by carmicha at 8:07 AM on October 25, 2018


Regarding non-responsiveness to this signal by drivers in cars without their lights on, nowadays most cars have an "automatic" feature that manages the headlights.

Also, a lot of cars now have "normal" headlights that are too bright, and if you get a flash that means "your brights are on" but you know they are not, there isn't much you can do about it.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:12 AM on October 25, 2018 [8 favorites]


I will flash my lights at a car if they don't have their lights on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Being New England, people often think you're telling them they have their brights on, and they will then flash their brights to say "Look, asshole, my brights are not on!"

One time I flashed my lights to warn a guy that there was a moose in the road up ahead and he flipped me off. I still hope he didn't hit the moose.

Generally if someone flashes at me I'll first check that I have my lights on and if I do I'll assume there's a cop up ahead, or something else to be alert for.
posted by bondcliff at 8:15 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


The UK police actually recommend that you don't flash your lights as it's easily misinterpreted. As discussed above, you may be flashing to indicate a problem where another driver may think you're giving way and allowing them to turn in front of you. Worse, multiple drivers may think you're flashing at them!
posted by Eleven at 8:21 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


I will turn my own lights on and off to signal someone driving without lights. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. I flick my lights when someone comes at me with high beams, but honestly, some of these new cars REGULAR lights seem like high beams in certain road conditions (if they topped a rise and are coming down towards you, sometimes).

When it comes to warning someone of a police car ahead, I don't bother. I'm sick to death of speed demons around here (lifetime New Jersey girl) so if they get caught in a speed trap, good.

I will flash my lights when I see deer close to the road, though.
posted by annieb at 8:26 AM on October 25, 2018


From New England:

-Warning: cop or accident/turtle/bear/deer ahead
-Turn on your headlights, Dumbass

I highbeam someone who is highbeaming me
posted by lakersfan1222 at 8:37 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Western Canada my whole life here. Have done these myself, observed others do it, and had these done to me:

Flicking lights on and off:
-turn on your headlights
-there's potential danger ahead (eg accident scene, roadwork, animal on road)

Flashing high beams:
-turn your damn high beams down
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:57 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Flashing at an oncoming car: your headlights are off, or your high beams are on.

Flashing behind a car: It’s raining, fool. I know your headlights aren’t on because your tail lights aren’t on. (In Virginia, when your wipers are on, your headlights also must be on.)

Parking lights aren’t headlights. Daytime running lights aren’t headlights.
posted by emelenjr at 9:10 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


In southern California, flashing your brights is a rather opaque signal that something's up: your lights aren't on, your high beams are, your trunk is open, you forgot your lane change signal has been on for the past two miles, etc. I've also noticed people flicking brights either to signal "yeah, I see you, you can go ahead and make that lane change/turn," or to indicate to someone to speed the fuck up and/or change their lane otherwise.

As opaque a signal as it can be, I do prefer it to honking. Honking is for something really wrong (i.e. your car is on fire) or for some fuck up (you cut me off and nearly crashed into me!).
posted by yasaman at 9:59 AM on October 25, 2018


In rural Japan in the early 00's it also meant 'cop/hazard ahead.'

I suspect another reason the 'your lights aren't on' use has faded is because so many vehicles have an auto setting these days. I haven't manually turned on my lights since I got a new car in 2016.
posted by Caravantea at 10:29 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


I have spent nearly all my life in New England and high beam flick always means "look out" (eg for cops, moose, geese, lights off) or "go ahead / I'm yielding to you." (the latter is super useful when it's dark enough for driver gestures to be unreadable.)

The "thanks for yielding to me!" brights flick I've only encountered in Commonwealth nations or from recent transplants and I advise against it here.
posted by bagel at 10:41 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


In Los Angeles during the "gang panic" years, white people decided that flashing your lights at someone meant "please come over and shoot me" for some reason. The thinking was that black/hispanic gang members would drive around with lights off at dusk and wait for unassuming civilians to notice and flash their lights.

It doesn't make any sense if you think about it for even a second (why not just shoot the first person you see?), but nor does anything else related to the various panics over time.
posted by sideshow at 10:48 AM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


I have always signaled that someone's lights were off by turning mine quickly off, then on.

This is what it means to me, as well. I do this to people driving in the dark with their lights off at least a couple of times a month. I think maybe twice in my entire driving life has the person clued in.
posted by Knowyournuts at 11:35 AM on October 25, 2018


I use them to let the oncoming cars that deer, moose, mountain goats or something along the road is about to wreck the car if they aren't paying attention. Same with hiking on trail to alert those headed where you came from that a snake, coyote, or predator is more than likely to be encountered. Otherwise at night is to say "hey, you might be hard to see unless you check that you have running lights."
posted by brent at 11:37 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


I've resorted to flashing the other car with full-on brights. If they are paying attention, they'll usually try to flick their brights to respond. That's the only chance they'll probably have to realize their lights are off.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:42 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


In Germany, this usually means “I see you, you go first“, as someone mentioned upthread for the uk. Drivers will flash their lights at cyclists and pedestrians too, which confused the heck out of me at first.

It can also mean your lights are off / something’s wrong with your car if there’s no context as above.
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 11:47 AM on October 25, 2018


North Jersey native here. When I learned to drive, flicking oncoming traffic meant “cop ahead” or “turn your headlights on/high beams off.” In slower or stopped traffic after dark, it substituted for the “go ahead” wave. Flicking the car ahead of you on the highway meant “get out of the passing lane.” In the absence of any of the above conditions, it meant “check your car for another problem.”

Now that I live in Southern California, responses are mixed. I’ve seen the “go ahead” flick work but “turn on your headlights” and “quit squatting in the passing lane doing 45” are utterly ineffective. (Also: why does LA hate headlights?) I did once manage to let someone at a red light know their gas tank was open, but folks seem generally oblivious.

When I drove in North Jersey recently, the cop warning seemed to have fallen out of usage, but the lights on/brights off signal still kinda worked.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 11:55 AM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


In Massachusetts people seem to flash their headlights more often, for a wider variety of things.

Yes! And in Vermont too. For me when I flash it's usually

- HAZARD (often a moose, animal or tractor)
- YOUR LIGHTS ARE OFF (technically you have a half hour after sunset, if what i remember from driver's ed is correct)
- YOUR BRIGHTS ARE ON (as what other people said, sometimes I am wrong so I don't do this too much)
- COP AHEAD. YOU'RE WELCOME.
- IT'S OKAY TO GET BACK INTO MY LANE (usually for trucks that are passing me)
- I WAS REACHING FOR MY WINDSHIELD WIPERS WHOOPS (I am not always that alert)

When people use it here that I see, it's almost always COPS AHEAD.
posted by jessamyn at 11:58 AM on October 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


Huge pet peeve of mine that people -- especially those with grey cars -- drive with the lights off. I have tried the flicking the lights on and off. It rarely works. Some drivers seem to think it is an alert for a cop ahead, and on a rare occasion the driver does turn on their lights.

I have mostly given up because like most things these days, it just makes me angry.
posted by terrapin at 1:04 PM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


Southeastern PA, and I use it as "your brights are on/your lights are off" and "go ahead, I'm yielding to you."

Related funny story: In the car with my sister driving, stopped at a light with a big truck right behind us. She asked, "Do you ever wish you could reverse flash somebody?" I, not having the rearview mirrors adjusted to focus the truck's headlights glaring into my eyes, replied, "...?? ... you mean moon them?" We looked at each other, each shocked our sister would suggest such a thing. A beat later, we realized "oh, the other kind of flashing!" and dissolved into giggles.
posted by Princess Leopoldine Grassalkovich nee Esterhazy at 1:12 PM on October 25, 2018


Interestingly enough, Fish, fish's answer:

North Jersey native here. When I learned to drive, flicking oncoming traffic meant “cop ahead” or “turn your headlights on/high beams off.” In slower or stopped traffic after dark, it substituted for the “go ahead” wave. Flicking the car ahead of you on the highway meant “get out of the passing lane.” In the absence of any of the above conditions, it meant “check your car for another problem.”

Is exactly everything as I understand it, for central/North NJ as well.
posted by rachaelfaith at 1:28 PM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Detroiter here who also turns off and on my lights when I encounter a car w/o their lights on at night. To me flashing my brights means move over asshole I want to get around you while you drive under the speed limit in the left lane or turn off your blinding brights before every other driver goes blind from them. In both cases the other driver rarely complies but Detroiters drive like jerks imo.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 2:04 PM on October 25, 2018


Lifelong Bostonian, I'm probably a little naive but I had no idea until today that this was sometimes used to warn other people that a cop was ahead. People are that selfless?

For me, it's 10% "turn your lights on" and 90% "I think your brights might be on because you went over a speed bump." Once I got pulled over by a cop who thought my brights were on, and let me go after I demonstrated that they were not. I think that car had particularly bright headlights, because I got flashed a lot back then. It's worse these days anyway, since speed bumps are becoming more common.
posted by Melismata at 2:06 PM on October 25, 2018


Raised and still living in Minnesota and I do that to mean that the oncoming car either has their headlights off entirely or their brights on. I've never used it to signal anything else and it wouldn't occur to me to tip others off to a speed trap or whatever.
posted by anderjen at 2:26 PM on October 25, 2018


Interesting that there's a big distinction between flashing brights vs turning lights on and off - neither of my current family cars will allow me to turn the lights off at night, the car-computer-nanny thinks that's a bad idea. It's annoying, limits my communication ability; but at least eliminated driving around at night with lights off.
posted by aimedwander at 3:01 PM on October 25, 2018


I've done it, and sometimes it's worked, sometimes it hasn't. (Southern New Hampshire.)
posted by sarcasticah at 3:23 PM on October 25, 2018


A slightly tangential comment- I remember reading that there was a legal case about whether flicking your lights to signal a speed trap ahead was considered a form of constitutionally protected speech. (A motorist was ticketed for doing that.) I might be mis remembering, but I think the case was decided in favor of the police.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 8:29 PM on October 25, 2018


From Massachusetts. 90% of the time flashing headlights = cop ahead, 10% = turn your headlights on
posted by emd3737 at 2:58 AM on October 26, 2018


Pretty much the 80's rumor, but in brightly lit city most of the time so turn-on-your-lights is a bit less relevant?? The big one is from lots of late-night cross-country drives and truckers. The flick or lights-off-on when they are passing and clear in front of you will often get you a response where they do the off-on thing to their running lights. You also might give a flash before passing just to let them know of your intent to pass. The growing number of cars that have headlights that are always on has sorta reduced the need to flash for no-lights (plus it's basically daylight on night streets anyway).
posted by zengargoyle at 1:43 PM on October 27, 2018


I'm from--and still in--the DC area and I learned it to mean either "your lights are off" or "your brights are on". I once had someone flick their lights to tell me there was a state trooper up ahead, and my boyfriend (who was in the passenger seat) had to explain what it meant after I anxiously checked my headlights. I am 27 in case anyone is wondering if this is a generational thing.
posted by capricorn at 12:28 PM on October 28, 2018


Of course the first time I attempted this after asking this question, the other car immediately turned their lights on.
posted by coppermoss at 5:42 PM on November 6, 2018 [2 favorites]


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