Lights and Signals

Having been a driver for so many years (professional, private, for work, for pleasure, and otherwise), I often come across ambiguity, or sometimes downright confusion, with people who don’t know (don’t care?) what certain signals mean from other drivers.

Sure we all know the ‘typical’ hand gestures, often rude, rarely helpful, but did you know there’s actually a meaning behind what you’re doing with your lights?
Let’s start with defining terms:

Turn Signals:
When you activate your turn signals (or blinkers), you’re letting the drivers around you know that you intend to move or turn in that direction. Note that this signals intention, and does not give you license to move freely into otherwise occupied space. Left turn signal for a left turn or movement, right turn signal for a right turn or movement.

Hazard lights (Or flashers) are usually the same physical lights as your turn signals, but when you activate the Hazard lights, all four lights should flash at once (left turn, front & rear, right turn front & rear). Hazards should only be used to signal that you are a hazard to the drivers around you.

Marker Lamps:
Also known as ‘parking lamps’, these are the first stage of your two-stage headlight switch, and when activated, should show two solid orange lights up front, and two solid red lights in the rear. Note that these lights are often the same as your brake or turn signal lights, but are about half as bright. These lights are designed to ‘mark’ your vehicle, or to show other vehicles where your vehicle is.

Headlights (or Low-beams) are the front facing white lights, generally between 16″ and 28″ above street level (check your local legal library for specific measurements in your are), and are used to illuminate the roadway in front of you so you can see in less-than-light conditions.

High beams are the ‘high’ or ‘bright’ lights you use when it’s really dark outside, AND, there’s no other vehicles around you. You can read my other post for more info there. High beams are designed to give you maximum illumination when it’s very dark , and should not be used around oncoming or nearby traffic.

Fog lights:
Fog lights are a second, optional, set of lights situated low to the ground, and usually directly under the headlights. They’re often white, sometimes yellow or orange, and they’re designed to cut through heavy fog and illuminate the road in front of you.

To ‘dip’ your lights is to flash them in an intentional manner, usually for a full second, perhaps two, and it simply means to change the state of your lights. So if your headlights are on and you want to signal to someone with your headlights, you would turn your headlights off, on again, off, and on again, in a smooth, steady sequence. This lets other drivers know that the change in light was intentional, and allows them to understand the signal you’re conveying.

To flash your lights, typically your high beams, you want to activate and de-activate them as quickly as possible. Most vehicles these days have the headlight switch combined with the turn signal activator, so a tiny touch will usually do the trick.

Now that you know the terms and purpose of the different lights, let’s talk about what those lights are communicating:

Turn Signals:
These are used to indicate intention to turn, or change lanes, and should always be used so that other drivers can adjust if needed. Keep in mind that turn signals are merely an indication of intention, and do not give you license or right to interfere with other drivers.
If you’re in the passing lane (far left), and you’d like to pass the person in front of you, after you make sure they can move to the right, you would turn on your left turn signal; this is a polite of way saying, “Excuse me, I would like to pass”.

Marker lamps:
These are used to ‘mark’ the position of your vehicle, and should be used all the time, or anytime the sun is not shining brightly. This is especially true for dark or neutral colored vehicles in cloudy, rainy, foggy, or less-than-light conditions, so that other vehicles can clearly distinguish your vehicle from the background.
You can ‘dip’ your marker lights three times to signal a thank you, or an apology if you got too close to someone, or dip them twice to signal to someone on foot who is looking for your vehicle (this usually works best in the dark).
If you see someone dip their marker lights (which would include their headlights) five times, they’re signalling that you have an issue with your lights, and you should immediately head somewhere safe to check your lights.

Headlights are used to illuminate your path so you can see where you’re going. You should always drive in such a way that you can stop inside of what your headlights show you, otherwise, you’re ‘overdriving your headlights’.
If someone has just passed you, and you want to signal that they’re clear to move over, you would dip your headlights twice, but make sure they’re looking in their mirror first, or else they won’t see you. You might also reserve this for times when traffic is heavy, it’s dark, and/or there’s some precedence for the assistance.
If the driver flashers their marker lights three times, that’s their way of saying thank you.

High Beams:
The only time you should use your high beams for a signal is to alert other drivers of DANGER. Keep in mind that high beams are bright, and will often impair the vision of other drivers, so it can be seen as an aggressive tactic by police officers.
If you are a danger to other vehicles, such as when you’re sliding down an icy road towards an intersection, flashing your high beams at a high rate is a great way to get peoples attention. Couple this with your Hazard lights, and you’re conveying that you’re a dangerous hazard, and other drivers should avoid you.
DO NOT flash your high beams to let an overtaking driver know they’re clear to move over; it prevents them from seeing clearly, and conveys that there is danger, which of course if true if you’re the bad driver blinding people!
DO NOT flash your high beams at people you wish to pass, expect for emergency situations. Flashing your high beams at people is often seen as aggressive driving, and should only be used in an actual emergency.
During the daytime, you can tap your high beams twice from a distance to alert oncoming traffic that there is some danger up ahead; most notably used for alert that there is police activity, this can also be used for any danger that oncoming traffic is approaching. Do make the effort to keep it within one mile of the scene or site so you don’t get everyone riled up over nothing.

Fog Lights:
Because not all vehicles come equipped with fog lights, there’s no set meaning for them. You may have something worked out with friends and family, but expect that most people don’t associate any message with them.
The only common use I have for them is when i’m closely following someone, i’ll leave my headlights off and my fog lights on, both to avoid blinding them with my headlights, and to let them know i’m in ‘follow mode’. This is primarily a tactical use, and when I separate from them, they’ll know because I will turn my headlights on.
Another good use is in dense traffic, or urban areas; leave your headlights off, and just use your fog lights, as there’s plenty of light, and headlights often interfere with other drivers vision in dense traffic. Use this one with caution; it’s not often enforced in my experience, but it is a traffic violation.

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