This Is Exactly When You Should Use Your Hazard Lights When Driving

The rules vary state by state, so make sure you know the guidelines before you buckle up and drive.

Every product is independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Hazards of the road

You’re driving on local roads and highways on your daily commute. Suddenly, sheets of rain pour down, making what once seemed fine driving weather into an actual hazard. You see in front of you that drivers are turning on their hazard lights, but should you do the same? If you find yourself in one of these 16 scary driving scenarios, this is how you handle them.

First of all, what are hazard lights?

Hazard lights aren’t just for decoration. The experts at the Ford Driving Skills for Life Team (Ford DSFL) tell Reader’s Digest that “the hazard warning function is by FMVSS 108 definition a ‘driver-controlled device which causes all required turn signal lamps to flash simultaneously to indicate to approaching drivers the presence of a vehicular hazard.’ Most state laws are user laws, so they can determine when the user (driver) is permitted to operate them if they choose.” Basically, they’re lights on your car that flash on and off periodically to alert other drivers on the road of a potentially dangerous situation.

Are using hazard lights when driving illegal?

Yes and no. It depends on which state you’re driving in, so it’s important to know the rules of the road before driving. AAA has a great breakdown on its website where it’s legal to use your hazard lights and where it isn’t. For example, in Alaska, driving while using your hazard lights is not permitted. However, in California, “hazard light use is not permitted while driving except to indicate a traffic hazard.” Meanwhile, in Colorado, “hazard light use is not permitted while driving except if the vehicle speed is 25 mph or less.” Virginia has a lengthy policy since “hazard light use is not permitted while driving except for emergency vehicles, stopped or slowed vehicles to indicate a traffic hazard, when traveling as part of a funeral procession, or traveling slower than 30 mph.”

Sometimes, you may find yourself in a dangerous situation when it’s already too late. Be prepared while on the road with these items you should always keep in your car, including The Antigravity Batteries XP-10 battery charger, which Consumer Reports also recommends.

When should you use hazard lights?

There can be occasions where drivers can legally turn on their hazards to alert other drivers of potential driving situations. “One of the best uses of hazard lights I experienced was driving on the Autobahn in Germany years ago,” John Burkhauser, an auto repair specialist and director of educational programs at Bolt On Technology tells Reader’s Digest. “At that time, some sections of the Autobahn did not have speed limits. Drivers would turn on their hazards to indicate to those behind that there was a slow down ahead giving you the distance you needed to safely lower your speed.  They would only turn the hazard lights on briefly then shut them off.” These are the 16 safety features no vehicle should be without.

In a practical scenario, one of the first things you should do after a car accident is to activate your hazard lights. That alerts other drivers that there’s an accident and will help prevent another one from happening.

When should you not use hazard lights?

Bad weather isn’t an excuse to use your hazard lights. “If the weather you are experiencing is so bad that you feel the need to turn on your flashers due to low visibility, you should pull over to a safe place with the hazard lights on to warn other drivers that you are sitting there. Once conditions clear, resume your travel,” recommends Burkhauser. “Realize that in bad weather it is hard enough to see you, but now with no turn signals, other drivers also don’t know where you may be going to.” Here are a few more safe driving tips for scary driving situations.

After looking into your state laws, Burkhauser notes that “when your hazard lights are on they interfere with your ability to use your turn signals since they use the same lights. This means you cannot use your turn signals to indicate your next move, be it to another lane, exiting a highway or even turning.” In this instance, it might be best to reconsider using hazard lights when driving since this can cause more problems.

Don’t forget to inspect your car

“I recommend that all drivers get into a habit of walking around their vehicles regularly,” says Burkhauser. It’s good to observe your car regardless, and every couple of weeks look at the lights and make sure that you’re visible in all circumstances. “Additionally, look at your tires and vehicle body. Pop the hood and take a peek. Over time you will become familiar with your vehicle so you may see something change or go bad and catch it before it leaves you stuck.”

Not only does walking around your car help you become more familiar with your vehicle and how it works, but it does have practical uses that will help you in the long run. “On long trips, I walk around my car at rest stops just to look things over. Two times this has saved me from changing a flat tire on the side of a busy highway because I noticed an object in my tire before it went flat,” says Burkhauser. “I was able each time to drive it to a shop to get it repaired.” Now, don’t miss these car hacks that will make driving even safer.

Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com