Gridlock Guy: The hazard of driving with hazard lights

More than annoying, driving with flashers on in the rain sends the wrong message.

The abundance of rain in the last couple of weeks in North Georgia again exposed our maneuvering weaknesses. Wet roads and, worse, standing water sent cars sideways and caused contact citywide. These spring storms interrupted morning, midday, and PM drives and also made night travel and weekend trips hazardous. Saturated soil and heavy winds also brought down trees and wires, blocking roads and knocking out traffic lights. All of these obstacles are expected and some are avoidable (most crashes).

One rainy driving behavior must come to a stop: driving with hazard lights on.

Illuminating the flashers seems to be the knee jerk reaction a large number of drivers have when moderate or heavy rain falls. This is likely a learned behavior from watching other drivers doing it. And those drivers probably learned it from their cohorts, too. Bad behavior is contagious. But why is driving with hazards in the rain bad?

WSB Triple Team Traffic’s Mark Arum also hosts “Atlanta’s News and Talk with Mark Arum” weekdays from 4-7 p.m. on 95.5 WSB. During last Tuesday’s storms, Arum brought his annoyance with this to the air waves and most listeners weighed in in agreement. People often point to the behavior as an automatic signal that someone is a lousy driver.

The main contention with driving around with flashers on is that those lights falsely indicate an emergency. Multiple law enforcement officers called in to Arum’s show and noted this as the main problem. Driving with flashers solely because of bad weather is crying wolf. A HERO operator told me the same thing. Doing so confuses first responders and can cause them to respond to problems that don’t exist.

Law enforcement officials told the AJC the same thing in a February article during another rainy period in Atlanta. Cherokee Co. S.O. Capt. Jay Baker also said in that article that hazard lights confuse surrounding motorists. When a driver has their lights blinking, those around them don’t know if they are about to slow down for a problem or if they are trying to steer to the emergency lane. They also cannot see if that driver is using their turn signals to switch lanes or turn.

And this is where driving with hazard lights can glean a driver a ticket. Technically, Georgia law actually doesn’t ban the act. But an officer who called in to Arum’s recent show said that the moment they see a driver make a lane change with hazards on, they have made an illegal lane change, since they can’t simultaneously use their turn signal.

But drivers should behave at a higher bar than the law. Driving with hazards on cheapens the meaning of those flashing lights, meaning those with true problems may not be taken as seriously. And hazard lights nullify turn signals, which themselves are very important to use.

Let’s note that the ire many have with others driving with flashers on probably doesn’t fit the crime. Despite the downsides, the act is far less harmful than distracted driving, speeding, erratic lane changes, or drunk driving. And since so many people put their flashers on in heavy rain, the effect really should be more eye roll-inducing than angering. But drivers doing so is so annoying because it’s such an easy behavior to correct. So talking about this draws a lot of passion from many.

If driving conditions are overwhelming - which is one reason some argue they need to use the hazard lights - then pull over until bad weather subsides. Continuing to drive when the stress is high and confidence and visibility are low is a bad combo. Pushing through a commute in terrible weather puts people in danger. Driving with hazard lights doesn’t make it less dangerous.

Driving with flashers in the rain when not in an emergency situation is not illegal in Georgia, but it sends the wrong message, disarms the turn signal, and does absolutely nothing to make driving more safe. And while on the subject of safe driving in the rain, remember to turn on the headlights as soon as rain is heavy enough to warrant windshield wipers. The automatic feature on headlights has taken that knob out of the conscience of many, but we also need to override that when rain falls in daylight.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

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