Traffic Q&A: Tacoma attorneys shine light on whether it’s OK to warn about speed traps

Question: I’ve been saved from speeding tickets many times by somebody blinking their lights to warn that there’s a cop hiding up ahead, looking for speeders.

It always gives me a warm feeling inside. I return the favor whenever I can. But is it legal to do this? (Not that I’m going to stop. Just wondering.) – Peter, South Hill

Answer: There are a couple of different issues here. First, there’s your intent, which is to subvert the efforts of a law enforcement officer by giving away his hiding spot.

That could conceivably be considered “obstructing a law enforcement officer.” Generally, though, courts have found the practice to be protected as free speech.

The slightly riskier part – oddly enough – is what seems more innocuous: Technically speaking, you are using your high beams illegally.

That could conceivably get you a citation, according to Valerie and Stephen Schuman, Tacoma attorneys whose joint practice specializes in traffic law. But it’s not likely.

“As is so often the case with laws on the books, there’s a common-sense argument to a situation, and then there’s a strict “by-the-book” approach,” Valerie Schuman said. “Strictly speaking, the flashing of high beams to warn of an upcoming officer looking for speeders could technically be a citable offense.”

The applicable statutes (RCW 46.37.220 and 230) require drivers to use their low beams when there’s an oncoming vehicle within 500 feet.

“The common-sense reason for the law is that high beams can cause dangerous situations for oncoming drivers who are blinded by those insensitive enough to not switch to low beams while approaching,” Schuman said. “It seems unlikely, however, that briefly flashing your high beams would have a blinding effect.”

Schuman notes that in Oregon (which has a statute about high-beam usage that’s similar but not identical to Washington’s), a judge found that flashing high beams is like an “optical horn” and that it did not interfere with the safety focus of the statute.

“We’ve never had a client cited with such an offense, and one would think that it would have to be a pretty slow day for any officer inclined to cite for such an offense unless it was a particularly egregious situation,” Schuman said. “But there’s a first time for everything.”