Why do some drivers flash their hazard lights when seeing a pedestrian?
May 12, 2008 4:50 PM   Subscribe

What's up with drivers turning on their hazard lights when stopping for a pedestrian?

I'd never seen it before very recently, but now I've seen it twice in a few weeks - a car pulling up to the intersection I was about to cross putting on its hazard lights to (presumably) let me know they saw me, or perhaps to tell the driver behind they were stopping (or both). Is this common practice in certain places? These have both happened in Berkeley, California. Does anyone do this regularly? I was not taught this in driver's ed.
posted by ORthey to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total)
I haven't seen this but I have seen cars almost run over pedestrians on a two lane road because the pedestrian was hidden from view by the stopped car. Presumably the stopped car is trying to help warn the 2nd lane of traffic.
posted by sharkfu at 4:55 PM on May 12, 2008

Whenever I'm stopped for a reason that may not be evident to those behind me, I hit the hazard lights... especially if I'm stopped, or going to remain stopped, when others don't expect it...
posted by HuronBob at 4:57 PM on May 12, 2008

Many times I have seen the use of hazard lights recommended when you come upon some obstruction (such as a massive traffic slowdown on a freeway) that may not be expected or visible to drivers behind you.
posted by grouse at 5:00 PM on May 12, 2008

Seconding HuronBob...my boyfriend and I both do it when driving, to alert drivers behind us of something amiss. I don't necessarily do it for a pedestrian, but I do for other types of obstructions like trucks backing out.
posted by cabingirl at 5:35 PM on May 12, 2008

Hmm, I've not seen that ever, and I drove a cab in Boston for three years. I did hit my hazards if I was going to come to a stop *and remain stopped*, but not if I was just pausing for a pedestrian. (If someone was coming up fast behind me, I'd tap my breaks three or four times to indicate an imminent stop.) I also got in the habit of pointing at pedestrians if I planned to let them cross, rather than wave them on. Some years back, a utility truck driver allegedly waved some pedestrians in front of him; they subsequently sued his ass when they got clipped by a passing car.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 5:56 PM on May 12, 2008

Also, I'm not at all sure this is a good idea. When I see a car put on the hazards, that says to me "go around me, I'm stopping." Maybe it's a city thing, where hazards are most often used for double parking.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 5:58 PM on May 12, 2008

I have had people flash their headlights at me, when I was a pedestrian at an intersection. I took it to mean, "I don't want to play the fucking hesitation game today. WALK. NOW."
posted by proj08 at 6:04 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry but the Bay area is way way way overcautious when it comes to stopping for pedestrians. And I can say this because I'm back in Southern California now, where pedestrians run across the street to stay out of traffic's way. Honestly, the rules for pedestrian right of way there are far more cautious than anywhere else I've ever been in the world including remote country towns. I've been pulled over twice by Peninsula police officers on uncrowded streets, both times after driving through a pedestrian crossing when someone had *just* stepped into the crossing ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET. Each time I was told, "You were lucky they saw you, you could've killed them." and I thought to myself, "Well, yeah, I saw them... but I was over twelve feet away from them! Unless they started running at top speed across the street to jump in front of my car I'm not grasping how could they have been in danger...?"

I've just come to realize that different places have different traffic cultures. There are an awful lot of places in the world where if you had to wait until all pedestrians were five yards away, your car would never move. It's not something you can tell a SF cop and avoid a ticket... but learning to drive in Southern California, I was taught to believe that if pedestrians are more than 6 feet away from you and you are clearly aware and carefully avoiding them at a reduced speed there is generally no sense of danger. It's okay to gingerly drive *around* a pedestrian and safely keep your distance.

Moral of the story, I haven't seen it myself but putting the hazard lights on seems typical Northern California to me and doesn't surprise me an ounce. But it's not a common statewide thing or anything that I know of... in Southern California putting hazards on would seem like weird overkill behavior unless you were waiting for something slow or particularly valuable to cross the street in front of you... like Steven Hawking or a flock of baby ducks or people moving a piano or something.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:05 PM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've never seen that happen, but I usually interpret hazards as "go around me" not "there's a pedestrian." I generally interepret flashing the headlights as aggression -- so if I were crossing and a car flashed brights or whatnot, I'd see that as, "I'm in a hurry, get out of my way please."
posted by Quarter Pincher at 6:19 PM on May 12, 2008

Anecdotally -- I put my hazards on last night because it was dark, I was on a fast stretch of highway, and I needed to turn off but I wasn't sure which of three streets was the right one. I needed to go slowly enough to read street signs, so I guess I thought putting on my hazards would be polite.

I was going to be annoying to any car behind me, essentially, appearing to turn off then changing my mind. Anything I could do to encourage them to overtake would be good for us both.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:50 PM on May 12, 2008

My guess was that it's mostly along the lines of proj08's answer - a sign that "ok, I'm stopping, go, no games." Both times the driver sort of looked off to the side, mildly annoyed, but in a way that suggested it was common practice for them to do this.
posted by ORthey at 6:56 PM on May 12, 2008

I haven't seen anyone do what you've described, but having seen someone crossing the street get hit by a Jeep that pulled up behind two stopped lanes of traffic, then decided to swing around into the parking lane to get around -- there certainly should be some way to say "hey, jackass, we're stopped for a reason."

Or, you know, we could just make it a lot harder to get driver's licenses. That'd work, too.
posted by davejay at 6:58 PM on May 12, 2008

well, i think you must take into account that this is happening in Berkeley. it's not exactly known for doing things the way everyone else in this fine country does.

that being said, I've seen people turn on their hazards, presumably to warn other drivers about some obstacle in the road that they see. I didn't immediately understand what they were doing, because I've always equated hazard blinkers with "a car that is not where it is supposed to be, (perhaps also not going the speed it should)."
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:02 PM on May 12, 2008

On a highway or fast road, using hazards to try to tell people around you that there's a problem in the road is not good, because if there's a hazard ahead of you, you should have your hands on the wheel and not be looking around for the hazard button you use about once a year. On the other hand, if you've had to slow down so much that you are now part of the hazard, turn 'em on, but get off the road.

On city streets, I've only seen hazards used to mean "I'm stopped for personal reasons and my car's like in Park and stuff, come around" If you plan on moving ahead but can't for some temporary reason, you don't need a special signal for that. Likewise, if you see a car in another lane stopped when they could be going you'd best slow the crap down in case a pedestrian pops out from in front of them.

I think these people in Berkeley are doing it wrong™
posted by fleacircus at 7:50 PM on May 12, 2008

Well, according to Driving in the United Kingdom, At night, drivers may thank each other by flashing their headlights when safe to do so, while when on fast roads they will frequently indicate thanks by briefly using the indicator lights on first one side of the vehicle and then the other, or by turning on their hazard lights for two or three flashes. It's so far the only reference I've found to using the hazards for general signaling as opposed to emergency or otherwise atypical stopping.

Any Brits know anything about this?
posted by wemayfreeze at 7:58 PM on May 12, 2008

Just for reference, I answered above that I do this (for obstructions), and I am in Minnesota. I learned to do it from a Midwesterner. I've also seen this behavior in rural Pennsylvania, on one of those narrow winding farm roads.
posted by cabingirl at 8:03 PM on May 12, 2008

I use my hazards if I'm going at a high rate of speed and slowing suddenly and just keep them on for a second or two so there are a half dozen flashes (so I can concentrate on braking) to alert the car behind me I'm slowing radically.

If, whilst on the freeway, I suddenly come upon something that causes me to stop FAST, I keep the blinkers on until I see that the person behind me is also slowing.

I used to live in Berkeley and one of the multitude of reasons I'd never make Berkeley my permanent home is how annoyingly random the drivers are. The point of traffic regulations is so we all can predict a little better what the other drivers might do - Berkeley drivers regularly (and randomly) cede right of way (e.g. suddenly stopping on a busy street to let a car cross in the other direction) running reds, stopping at greens, I see it all. I know they think they're being nice, but we're talking a 1/5000 chance of an accident every time I slide behind the rule. Follow the rules, people!
posted by arnicae at 10:20 PM on May 12, 2008

Any Brits know anything about this?

It's uncommon to use hazards for thanks but it does happen. It's usually used to say thanks to the driver behind who lets you in after changing lanes. As a signal to pedestrians, never heard of nor seen that.
posted by dmt at 1:39 AM on May 13, 2008

I was stopped by the police and warned about jaywalking in Berkeley. When I explained I was from Philly he wearily waved me on my way. Never seen this here, but I have seen people use their flashers in a 15 mph school zone.
posted by fixedgear at 2:21 AM on May 13, 2008

Any Brits know anything about this?
I'm not British, but in Japan the hazard lights are used in this goofy thank-you way frequently.
posted by whatzit at 4:42 AM on May 13, 2008

Any Brits know anything about this?

It's quite common amongst truck drivers in the UK to use a few ticks of the left & right indicators in turn as a thank-you signal (e.g. a truck overtakes you, signals to pull back to the inside lane, you flash your headlights to let him know he's clear to pull in, he changes lanes and then indicates right and left in thanks). I can't ever recall seeing a non-trucker do it, though, nor have I seen truckers use hazards as a thank-you signal - it's always done with alternate indicators.

Someone using hazards in an urban area says to me "I've broken down - go around me" or "I know I'm not supposed to, but I'm abandoning my car here for a few minutes as I have an pressing need to nip into the newsagent for a packet of fags - go around me".
posted by boosh at 5:11 AM on May 13, 2008

It's quite common amongst truck drivers in the UK to use use a few ticks of the left & right indicators in turn as a thank-you signal.....I can't ever recall seeing a non-trucker do it

I spent many a weekend as a child travelling British motorways as a passenger in a horse box. People who transport horses tend to go at a steady pace, slamming on the brakes with livestock is a bad idea. As a result we'd get overtaken an awful lot and became very familiar with overtaking etiquette.

It turned into something of a game, if we flashed in a lorry and they didn't tick to say thank you they'd get a boo and a cheer if they did tick. The more lavish the ticks the better, we'd often see double, sometimes triple ticks! That may have been something to do with the overtaken being a woman and child of course.

I sometimes use the left/right tick in the car to this day but mostly on motorways, in slow moving city traffic in a car, a wave is usually a visible enough way to say thank you and as noted, unless you're thanking the driver of an unusually long vehicle, they won't know what on earth you're doing.
posted by Ness at 5:49 AM on May 13, 2008

In South Africa it's common practice to turn on your hazards to say "thanks" after somebody has done you a favour - say pulled onto the shoulder to let you pass.
A flash of the headlights there, and in Canada, usually is a courtesy sign to mean go ahead (unless you're flashing oncoming traffic to warn them of a speed trap ahead).
And In Italy people use their hazard lights all the time - more than any other place I've seen - when they slow down on the highway, to warn people behind them that something's up. Usually fog, or when a very slow truck is blocking the way.
So, that's waht these drivers were doing. Seems a bit OTT to me.
posted by Flashman at 5:55 AM on May 13, 2008

This is something I'd actually like seen passed into law.

This has probably been stated, but when there's more than one lane of traffic, a pedestrian cannot always been seen when they're behind the first car. Putting on your hazzard lights, or if you're in the right-hand lane extending your left arm out the car window to alert traffic in the left-hand lane can be a life saver.

People are so busy doing other things behind the wheel these days that these small measures can make the difference between someone noticing that something's going on up ahead, or not.
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 9:21 AM on May 13, 2008

I think I'd be far more inclined to run a person over, had someone in another car just thrown hazards on. The whole point of hazard lights is to indicate there is something wrong with the car. Natural assumption? ok, avoid the car ... Oh I've killed a pedestrian.

Anything else is second-guessing the environment based on someone else's opinion; which is a pretty dangerous way to drive.
posted by Smoosh Faced Lion at 1:29 PM on May 13, 2008

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