Is it Legal to have Flashing Lights on your Car?
There are a couple of sure-fire ways to get your heart racing. Some of us go for a run while others watch horror movies, but the most effective method by far is to look into your rearview mirror and see a pair of flashing blue lights tailing your car. This is a stressful moment for most people worldwide, but in South Africa, it’s even worse. Do you really know if that’s a police officer? Maybe it’s a criminal, or a politician, or both! This brings up some interesting questions, like, when is it legal to have flashing lights on your car, who can do it and what do the different colours represent? Is it Legal to have Flashing Lights on your Car?
According to the South African Police Services (SAPS), different colours of flashing lights are used to identify different services. As such, only vehicles registered with those services may use the corresponding light. For most civilians then, it is illegal to have flashing lights of any colour on your car.
The colours are recognisable as follows –
|Light Colour ||Authorised For |
|Blue||Vehicles operated by SAPS and Municipal Police Services, Vehicles operated by Traffic Officers, Vehicles operated by Members of the SANDF Military Police.|
|Red||Ambulances, Firefighting or Rescue Vehicles.|
|Green||Disaster Management Vehicles.|
|White||Vehicles registered with security service providers are being driven by security officers.|
|Amber||Emergency vehicles concerned with maintaining public roads. Emergency vehicles engaged in electricity supply and distribution Emergency vehicles engaged in supplying essential public services. Emergency vehicles authorised by the MEC in terms of Section 81 of the Act Breakdown Vehicles. Refuse Compactor Vehicles. Vehicles carrying an abnormal load and vehicles escorting them.|
|Orange||When a breakdown has occurred. When maintenance, inspection or related work is being carried out. When a vehicle is being towed by a breakdown vehicle or when a vehicle is carrying an abnormal load. Orange Identification Lights can only be fitted on emergency vehicles or vehicles authorised by the MEC in a province.|
As you can see, flashing lights, regardless of the colour, are only used in specific scenarios by specific groups and thus, should not be randomly used by civilians or on unauthorised vehicles.
Interestingly, flashing identification lights are authorised for vehicles and not for those driving the vehicles, in other words, the driver of an emergency vehicle may not take their lights with them and fit them on a different vehicle.
Additionally, individuals such as SAPS members and traffic officers may only use their lights while performing official duties.
Can Politicians Use Blue Lights?
No, they may not. Although there has been some confusion over this point in recent years as some politicians have been accused of using blue lights when travelling, they do not have this right. Private individuals, including politicians, may request personal protection from the police services which may result in the police using blue lights in convoy, however, the individual does not gain the right to use these lights.
What is the Blue Light Protocol?
One of the more terrifying issues faced by South Africans on the road is the threat of dangerous criminals using fake blue lights as a type of lure. The worry is that criminals will affix blue lights to their vehicles and pretend to be members of the police services. Unsuspecting motorists will pull over, believing that they are simply following the rules, when suddenly, they find themselves being hijacked by the would-be officers.
In an attempt to counteract this ploy, in 2013, the Justice Project South Africa (JPSA) alongside the Road Traffic Management Corporation created the Blue Light Protocol which gave wary drivers an action plan to follow when they believed that they were in danger.
The protocol goes something like this, if you find yourself being flashed by blue lights but you aren’t sure if they’re legitimate, you should –
- Reduce speed
- Put on your hazards
- Drive to the nearest police station or public area before stopping
In 2019, however, the JPSA recanted on their endorsement of the Blue Light Protocol after it noted that many officers were not following this protocol and the refusal by motorists to immediately stop was putting them at risk as some police officers were interpreting this behaviour as criminal and non-compliant.
Currently there is some debate over the use of the blue light protocol with some citing it as a necessary function to safeguard motorists from crime while others view it as an undermining of police authority.
As things stand, it is still a criminal offence to refuse to stop for the police.
Is it Legal to Modify Your Headlights?
While it may be possible to make minor changes to your headlights and still operate within the bounds of the law, for the most part, modifications such as colour changes and flashing/strobe lights are illegal and should not be made.
Civilians should instead use a, ‘fixed burning white light’, additionally, non-emergency vehicles and/or vehicles not authorised by the MEC of a province may not use sirens.
What are you Supposed to Do When you See Emergency Lights?
Generally speaking, there are two legitimate instances in which you will encounter flashing lights and sirens. The first is when you are being warned of a hazard ahead. In this scenario, drivers should slow down and look for other road traffic signs that indicate a specific hazard.
The other common instance occurs when emergency vehicles or police services appear behind your vehicle. In these situations, you must immediately give the right of way to the vehicle displaying the lights or sounding a siren.
That said, when giving the right of way, motorists are supposed to drive, ‘with due regard to the safety of other traffic’ and should thus only move over when it is safe to do so.
Do I Have to Give the Right of Way to Emergency Vehicles?
Yes you do, it is an offence to not immediately give the right of way to vehicles using the aforementioned lights or sirens. Additionally, it is not left to the discretion of the driver to determine whether or not the lights or sirens are coming from a legitimate police or emergency vehicle and drivers are expected to give the right of way regardless of the source.
Motorists should also remember that emergency vehicles can sometimes be travelling in convoy and thus should avoid quickly turning back onto the road once the first emergency or police vehicle has passed as there may be more service vehicles on the way.
In Conclusion – What is the Law on Flashing Lights and What do the Different Colours Mean?
Flashing lights or sirens affixed to vehicles can mean many different things. Officially, different colours are used to distinguish different services, namely –
- Blue – Police or Military Services.
- Red – Ambulances, Firefighters or Rescue Vehicles.
- Green – Disaster Management Vehicles.
- White – Security Services.
- Amber – Various Emergency Vehicles.
- Orange – Emergency breakdown and maintenance vehicles such as tow trucks.
It is illegal for any non-emergency vehicles or any vehicles that have not received proper authorisation to display flashing lights or use sirens. Additionally, most modifications to headlights such as strobe lights or colour changes are generally illegal as these lights should be fixed, burning white lights. Politicians may sometimes request a police escort which may involve a type of blue-light convoy, however, this right to display flashing blue lights does not automatically extend to the politicians themselves.
Sadly, criminals have used flashing lights and sirens as a ploy to get motorists to pull over so that they can be robbed and/or assaulted. Due to these attacks, a Blue Light Protocol has been proposed which encourages motorists who suspect foul play to reduce speed and travel to the nearest police station or public area. That said, many complaints have arisen as not all police officers recognise this practice and simply view it as an act of non-compliance. Currently it is a criminal offence to refuse to stop for a police officer regardless of any personal concerns.
When a motorist encounters flashing lights or sirens coming from behind them, they are legally required to give the right of way as soon as it is safe to do so. Even if the driver does not believe that the lights or sirens are coming from a legitimate source, the decision is not theirs to make and they should still move out of the way. Drivers are asked to avoid panicking and to simply obey the rules of the road although they are reminded that many other emergency vehicles may be following the initial one and thus they should not immediately turn back onto the road once the first vehicle has passed.
Disclaimer LAW101: All of our posts are for research purposes only. Law 101 aims to assist its readers with useful information on the laws of our country that can guide you to make decisions in line with the South African Governmental Laws currently in place. Although our posts cite the constitution in many instances, they are intended to assist readers who are looking to expand their knowledge of the law. Should you require specific legal advice we advise you to get in touch with a qualified legal expert.
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