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Can Civilians Use Emergency and Warning Lights in Private Vehicles?  

Monday, April 17, 2017
Mark C
Black ford interceptor with rear strobe lights

Police cars, ambulances, and fire engines have emergency lights and sirens to allow them to warn other motorists they are driving much faster than other cars on the road. First responders for these departments don’t think twice about the legality of their emergency vehicle lights. A different group of first responders, including volunteer firefighters, dive teams, physicians, county coroners, volunteer EMS, and others have to question whether they are within their rights to use flashing emergency lights and sirens. Laws vary from state to state, but, here is a short guideline to address basic questions on the matter.


You can buy it, but, can you use it?

Emergency light products are available to the general public. Nonetheless, not everyone can legally operate an emergency light on public roads. Each state has its written policies regarding who can and cannot legally operate emergency lights. It is important to understand the laws of your particular state. Some states have relaxed policies and others dictate down to the location where an emergency light may be placed on your car.


Emergency lights for private, off-road use are permitted

If the purpose of an emergency light is to monitor private property, they are generally legal for civilian use. For example, farmers may want to place warning lights on farm transportation vehicles and other large equipment for use on their private property. Other private sectors and security agencies wishing to patrol places of business and operations include company parking lots, amusement parks, private recreational properties, and malls. Most state laws prohibiting civilian use of emergency lights only apply to usage on public roads.


Strobe light laws

Some people want to change the look of their car to make it stand out or to reflect their personal uniqueness. Many of these people consider changing their lighting; however, not every state permits strobe tube kits for outfitting on vehicles driving on public roads. Across all states, laws will include stipulations on brightness, color, and positioning of strobe lights (where they are legal). Emergency strobe lights are typically red or blue and are largely not allowed for civilian use. There are few exceptions to this rule; however, the general expectation is to not appear to impersonate law enforcement. Substantial fines may be incurred for violations of these laws. There are also laws prohibiting a certain level of brightness, particularly when considering LED strobe lights. While it still varies from state to state, the brightness limit is generally set at 300 candles. Accessory lights should not be bright enough to distract from other major lighting components on your car (headlights, brake lights, etc.).


Consult your state laws for more information

Generally speaking, emergency lights are only legal to those with the lawful authority to use them in the effort to enforce the law or perform life-saving work. Civilians may use emergency or unique strobe lights on private property, but, on-road use must be confirmed with the laws of your individual state.



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