NMA E-Newsletter #156: Driver-to-Driver Communication – It’s Complicated

From a friendly wave to the more emphatic middle-finger salute, drivers have been communicating with each other since people started driving. The NMA encourages thoughtful communication among drivers through our “7 Sensible Signals” brochure, which includes headlight flashing to warn of an upcoming hazard.

This shouldn’t be a problem if you’re signaling another driver about a cow in the road or a snow drift ahead (we’re in Wisconsin after all), but you should be aware of the larger issues involved if you alert other motorists to an upcoming speed trap.

Last year a Florida motorist was ticketed after he flashed his headlights to warn oncoming traffic of a speed trap set by the Florida State Patrol. Erich Campbell thought he was being helpful by engaging in this time-honored practice. The police thought otherwise and charged him with obstruction. The charges were dismissed, but Campbell filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of other motorists who received similar citations.

Campbell’s lawsuit claims flashing headlights at other drivers is protected under the First Amendment and should be considered free speech. The case illustrates how drivers can run afoul of the law when they try to communicate with each other.

Another more high-tech example comes from Edmonton, Alberta where Twitter users have been alerting their followers to the exact location of DUI roadblocks. Not only have these “tweets” rankled the local police, they’ve sparked an online debate between those who favor the practice and those who think it’s unethical.

Police in Edmonton and Calgary have appealed to motorists to stop the practice. However, police in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan encourage tweeting and use social media themselves to publicize the location of their DUI roadblocks. Stateside, police agencies routinely publicize pending enforcement actions in the name of deterrence.

This isn’t the first time that social media has come under fire for its potential to alert drivers of traffic enforcement efforts. Last year, Apple banned DUI checkpoint apps under pressure from four U.S. Senators.

In an ironic twist, our public information sites, roadblock.org and speedtrap.org, routinely receive detailed anonymous postings of upcoming traffic enforcement actions. We do know that some of these are posted by law enforcement and assume others are as well.

This doesn’t bother us one bit. In fact, we’re happy to help because we believe that informed drivers are safer drivers. Drivers should have as much information as possible about what they face on the road so they can make decisions that are in the best interests of themselves and their passengers.

Given the spread of cell phone/texting bans, drivers caught sharing the location of roadblocks or speed traps could face a double hit: an obstruction charge and a distracted driving charge.

All we can say is be careful out there.

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