QOTD: What Does It Mean When Someone Flashes Their Headlights?

Mark Stevenson
by Mark Stevenson
qotd what does it mean when someone flashes their headlights

You’re driving through the city, minding your own business, when all of a sudden someone in a car behind you starts flashing their headlights. What do you do?

Urban legends aside, the act of flashing your headlights or high beams at someone can mean a number of different things — which sucks, because usually the person on the receiving end misunderstands your optical horn.

For whatever reason, I have noticed many more drivers than normal driving around the city of Halifax without their headlights on.

When you are driving in the opposite direction as someone in Canada, it’s a lot harder to notice if other drivers have their headlights turned off due to daytime running lights being law here. Before the recent popularity of LED daytime running lights in new cars, most car manufacturers would simply rely on the existing bulbs in the headlight housing to provide daytime illumination. When DRLs first arrived, it was interesting to see how each automaker implemented their own solutions. For instance, most Chrysler products wouldn’t use the headlight itself, instead sending power to the amber signal lights. You could point out a Dodge Caravan from miles away.

However, when you are driving behind someone that doesn’t their headlights on it is much easier to spot. Since taillights are not typically illuminated even with cars fitted with DRLs, if someone’s taillights are off between the times they are riding the brake pedal in the twilight or darker hours, you know for certain their headlights aren’t on.

So, what do you do when you encounter one of these unknowing specimens on your local roadways?

Flashing my high beams at the other driver is a pretty effective way of telling them their headlights are turned off — just a simple double flick of the stalk — or at least I thought so in the past. Only about 1/3 of the unilluminated folks I encounter receive the message as it’s intended. With the others, when I have the chance, I pull up beside them at the next stop sign or traffic light, roll down my window, and attempt to politely tell them their lights are off. That covers about another third of these lightless wonders.

Yet, it’s the final third that seem to not want to be told anything. After flashing my lights and politely rolling up beside them to communicate their candlepower deficiencies, they absolutely refuse to even look away from dead-straight ahead. They are automatons. The act of driving is just a series of instructions downloaded from the Ministry of Transportation into their little heads.

Or maybe not.

Wikipedia has a whole entry devoted to headlight flashing and, before you even get into the meat of the entry, the second paragraph probably provides a hint as to what’s going on in these situations (emphasis mine):

The signal can be intended to convey a variety of messages, including a warning to other drivers of road hazards or of speed traps, and it can also be a form of aggressive driving. The legality of headlight flashing varies by jurisdiction.

Does this last third of drivers not using their headlights think I am being an aggressive driver? Possibly. They typically tend to be the middle-aged, helicopter mom types in three-row SUVs and what looks to be a permanent scowl on their faces. Or, shit, maybe they’re just having a bad day. Who am I to judge?

Yet, the fact remains, headlight flashing can mean any number of things.

Last night, Bozi and I had a short exchange on Twitter about headlight flashing after we both admitted to turning into grumpy old men.

Just unbuttoned my jeans while sitting on the couch watching TV, solely to be more comfortable. I'm now my father.

— Mark Stevenson (@MarkTTAC) August 6, 2015

@MarkTTAC I yelled at some teenagers yesterday for their shitty driving so I know how you feel

— Bozi Tatarevic (@hoonable) August 6, 2015

@hoonable SPEAKING OF, if someone flicks their high beams at you, what does that mean?

— Mark Stevenson (@MarkTTAC) August 6, 2015

@MarkTTAC based on what I learned in the old country it always meant cops ahead

— Bozi Tatarevic (@hoonable) August 6, 2015

@hoonable what if the person flicking their lights is behind you?

— Mark Stevenson (@MarkTTAC) August 6, 2015

@MarkTTAC too slow*

— Bozi Tatarevic (@hoonable) August 6, 2015

So, Best and Brightest, what does headlight flashing mean to you? It also might help to tell us where you live, as I am guessing flashing your headlights in Virginia means something entirely different than in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

Join the conversation
2 of 109 comments
  • Beelzebubba Beelzebubba on Aug 08, 2015

    I've always used "flash a friend" to warn oncoming drivers for at least a mile after I pass a cop sitting on the side of the road. I've also used it to alert people that the are driving without their headlights on. I will also flash my headlights when I'm the left lane and I notice a car in the right lane approaching a slower moving car. Instead of speeding up, blocking them and forcing them to hit the brakes until I pass, I let them in front of me. Most of them will wave a quick 'thank you' which is always appreciated. I just wish everyone else drove this way.

  • Dannielle Dannielle on Apr 10, 2019

    I think drivers education in the US should teach people what it means since so many idiots in the United States are clueless. Usually it means you are driving too slow, your headlights are off, you are high beaming people, the car behind wants to pass you, or you are a terrible driver (if they flash repeatedly). If someone flashes there lights repeatedly at you it means that you're a bad driver and you need to pull over because the driver behind you doesn't want their safety put into jeopardy. I have had bad drivers throw bottles at me. My biggest case of ignorance was when I had a driver who drove the same route as me on the way to work every day. I would flash my lights repeatedly at him to alert him that he needs to learn how to drive or take the bus. He has tossed bottles at me and in one case pulled over but as soon as I got out to talk to him about his driving he sped off nearly hitting me and I began again flashing my headlights at him. At the next intersection he stopped and I got out to talk to him and he gunned it through a red light and nearly crashed. Unfortunately the police never removed him from the road or arrested him for throwing a bottle at me and nearly running me over twice when I tried to talk to him about his driving. He also never was cited for running the red light when he blew threw the red light. If someone is flashing repeatedly learn how to drive or take the bus and even though the police won't do anything to you it doesn't mean you are driving safely when angering other drivers.

  • Probert There's something wrong with that chart. The 9 month numbers for Tesla, in the chart, are closer to Tesla's Q3 numbers. They delivered 343,830 cars in q3 and YoY it is a 40% increase. They sold 363,830 but deliveries were slowed at the end of the quarter - no cars in inventory. For the past 9 months the total sold is 929,910 . So very good performance considering a major shutdown for about a month in China (Covid, factory revamp). Not sure if the chart is also inaccurate for other makers.
  • ToolGuy "...overall length grew only fractionally, from 187.6” in 1994 to 198.7” in 1995."Something very wrong with that sentence. I believe you just overstated the length by 11 inches.
  • ToolGuy There is no level of markup on the Jeep Wrangler which would not be justified or would make it any less desirable [perfectly inelastic demand, i.e., 'I want one']. Source: My 21-year-old daughter.
  • ToolGuy Strong performance from Fiat.
  • Inside Looking Out GM is like America, it does the right thing only after trying everything else.  As General Motors goes, so goes America.