SHERIFF'S CORNER: 'Hit the lights, partner'
Recently, Sheriff Mike Bouchard observed what appeared to be a police vehicle traveling down the road in Oakland County. When he ran the plate, it came back to a private individual and not a municipality.
Bouchard initiated a traffic stop and pulled the vehicle over. After the sheriff made contact, he observed a Ford Explorer decked out to look like a police car equipped with a fake radar, laptop and emergency lighting. The subject was taken into custody and charged with impersonating a police officer and carrying a concealed pistol.
This made me think of the next article topic — emergency and/or warning lights.
In this edition of the "Sheriff's Corner", I will be covering the lights seen on police cruisers, construction vehicles, fire trucks, tow trucks, plow trucks, mail carrier, ambulance, etc. Also known as beacons, lightbars, strobe bars, overheads, top lights, gumballs, two-bulber, and more.
(Note: There are color limitations on any passenger vehicle on where a certain colored light can be located on the front or back of the vehicle. This article is covering flashing emergency or warning lights.)
First responders began using emergency lighting around the 1940s, when law enforcement began using a single rotating red beacon light. By the 1960s, single lights expanded to light bars. Light bars offered greater visibility than the beacon light, especially from the side.
When I started in law enforcement in the '90s, the craze was to use strobe lightbars. They were very bright, but used a large amount of power. Now, with the invention of LED (light-emitting diode) lights, there are no limits to the many options of placement on vehicles.
First, let's define what warning lights are. Per MCL 257.698, the statute states this to be "flashing, oscillating, or rotating lights." I will cover the different colors that are allowed and who are allowed to possess or use them.
AMBER (OR YELLOW) LIGHTS
This is the most common color, as well as it being allowed the most exceptions under the law. This color is used for warning, not emergencies, although can be used in combination with emergency colors.
Vehicles that are authorized for "amber" warning lights include snowplow trucks, spill cleanup vehicles, utility service vehicles, wrecker or tow vehicles, auto service vehicles, garbage trucks, letter carriers, newspaper deliveries, security vehicles, escort vehicles (oversize load), military vehicles, farm apparatuses amd construction vehicles.
Note: This recently changed for privately owned snowplow trucks. You were only allowed to activate your lights when in the operation of moving snow. This has now been expanded to the movement between jobs. So, if you are going from one job to the next, you can keep your "amber" flashing lights on.
This color is generally legal for emergency vehicles only. So, let's define what an emergency vehicle is under the Michigan Vehicle Code:
"257.2(2) "Authorized emergency vehicle" means: (a) Vehicles of the fire department, police vehicles, ambulances, or privately owned motor vehicles of volunteer or paid fire fighters if authorized by the chief of an organized fire department, or privately owned motor vehicles of volunteer or paid members of a life support agency licensed by the department of consumer and industry services if authorized by the life support agency."
Vehicles that are authorized for "red" warning lights include police vehicles, fire trucks or apparatuses, ambulances or vehicles that are privately owned used for said purposes.
Exceptions: A wrecker (or tow truck) may be equipped with flashing "red" lights that can be activated only when the wrecker is engaged in removing or assisting a vehicle at the scene of a traffic accident or disablement. A licensed physician can operate flashing "red" lights while responding to an emergency scene with the permission of the county sheriff. "Red" flashing lights can be used on a school bus for dropping off or picking up children.
Flashing "blue" lights can only be used on police vehicles, or by a peace officer in a private vehicle with approval by the sheriff, or local police chief.
After taking office, I had all future police vehicles equipped with flashing "blue" and "white" lights for this distinction. Historically, a red/blue light combination is used to make a distinction for law enforcement in heavy traffic areas that have a large amount of brake lights. While red signifies an emergency, blue signifies law enforcement.
Note: When the emergency lighting law came out in 1949, it was defined that at least one specific light or lamp must be visible from 360 degrees. That is why you would never see a "slick top" fire truck. This was recently changed to not just one light, but as long as it can be seen at 360 degrees with any amount of lighting, it would be legal and would not require a specific configuration. It just has to be seen from a distance of 500 feet, in all directions.
In the past, "green" lights were only allowed to be used by the fire service to denote a command post, or command vehicle. Recently, the law was expanded for usage by municipal road commission vehicles, most commonly used for snow plowing. So any state, county or local plow truck can use "green" lights. They cannot be used on privately or commercially owned plow vehicles.
This one is kind of unique, because most of you probably didn't know that there were "purple" flashing lights. Surprisingly there is, and they can only be used by a vehicle that is escorting a funeral possession.
Note: The law gives funeral processions the right-of-way at intersections, but it does not specifically address traffic signals. Some court decisions have interpreted this to include signalized intersections as well.
CLEAR (OR WHITE) LIGHTS
"White" flashing lights were never covered in the law until the past few years.
The law states: "An authorized emergency vehicle may display flashing, rotating, or oscillating white lights in conjunction with an authorized emergency light as prescribed in this section."
Earlier above, we defined an emergency vehicle as a police or fire vehicle or an ambulance. So, having "white" flashing lights on anything else would technically be prohibited. Now, I have seen plow vehicles and utility vehicles with secondary flashing "white" lights which were used in conjunction with "amber" lights. I would probably say there would be no issue, depending on the circumstance.
Exception: "A public transit vehicle may be equipped with a flashing, oscillating, or rotating light mounted on the roof of the vehicle approximately 6 feet from the rear of the vehicle that displays a white light to the front, side, and rear of the vehicle, which light may be actuated by the driver for use only in inclement weather such as fog, rain, or snow, when boarding or discharging passengers, from 1/2 hour before sunset until 1/2 hour after sunrise, or when conditions hinder the visibility of the public transit vehicle."
There is no difference on possessing or usage. As some may state you can have any color as long as you do not turn them on when the vehicle is in motion, the law does not show any distinction between the two. If you ain't allowed to use it, you ain't supposed to have it...or it needs to be covered up.
Recently, I have seen these light strips or whip lights of colored LEDs on side-by-sides on the roadway. Whether you are riding your ORV on the road as an ORV or as a plated vehicle, these lights are not legal. If they are turned off, you should not have a problem.
This information is provided to you for clarification on specific laws, and not legal advice. This is not to be construed as a personal opinion, agreement or disagreement of any specific law.
If you have any questions on any specific topic, you can always email me your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, it is a honor serving and working for all of you who live, visit and work in Lake County. Working together, we can make a difference.