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                   Tuesday, March 8, 2011 - 10:10AM CST

Lightbars and supplemental hazard lighting: finding the balance

Storm Chaser/Photographer
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One of the projects on my list for some point in the future is surveying lawmakers, highway officials and law enforcement for a definitive opinion on the legality and usefulness of supplemental lighting for chasers and spotters. On a controversial issue like this frought with opinion and speculation, I find it interesting to do some 'investigative journalism' to try and find the most likely truth straight from the source. In the meantime, I'd like to attempt to present a balanced analysis of the issue.

A classic chaser controversy

The subject of vehicle-mounted lightbars is one of the more heated controversies in storm chasing. To be proper, the issue is actually with supplemental lighting, of which lightbars are a subset. supplemental lighting includes any aftermarket unit or system, such as headlight/taillight strobes, flashers, arrow sticks, window flashers, etc as well as the classic roof-mounted lightbars (one variant is pictured below, that I no longer recommend).

The supplemental lighting issue is so shrouded in sweeping, anathematic pontifications on the negative side, and tainted with irresponsible use on the positive side, that objective reasoning about them has been mostly lost in the many debates. The detractors would like everyone to believe that having them at all, whether or not you use them correctly, is useless and the mark of attention-seeking frivolity. Then you have vehicles with unreasonably bright and numerous lights running all day from the beginning of the chase to the end, and even others who think that they give a free pass to break traffic laws or park illegally. The truth, of course, is probably somewhere in the middle.

Origins of the phenomenon

Supplemental lighting usage by chasers (along with mobile weather instruments, another topic for a future article) most likely began with their installation on the early NSSL (National Severe Storms Laboratory) vans and VORTEX research vehicles in the 1980s and early 1990s. Photographs exist of these vehicles employing small rotating beacons long before storm chasing was a blip on the map. With these research projects being featured prominently on television specials by the likes of NOVA, PBS and National Geographic, the image of the quintessential storm chasing vehicle was born. Most of what we see today in the contemporary chase vehicle is likely tied to imitation of these iconic examples.

NSSL VORTEX1 fleet in 1994/1995 (NSSL photo)

With the advent of the movie 'Twister' in 1996, the lightbar/flashing light on a chase vehicle was catapulted into even greater prominence. Following the movie, storm chasing went 'mainstream' with television episodes and specials further propagating the phenomenon (for example, 'Touched by an Angel' had a storm chaser-themed episode featuring a vehicle with a lightbar).

Despite their use on official research vehicles, the original "recreational" storm chasers of the early 1970s and 1980s didn't use supplemental lighting at all, to my knowledge (chase veterans, feel free to correct me) - though many early examples of vehicles fully decked out with antennas, instruments and a lightbar could be found long before 'Twister'.

Intended purpose and justification

Supplemental lights - whether used by chasers, spotters, tow truck drivers, snowplows or mail carriers - have one legitimate purpose, to increase the visibility of a vehicle that is traveling slower than normal or pulling over/stopping in an unusual place. A chaser or spotter vehicle certainly falls into that category. Most state statutes describe supplemental light usage as being for vehicles that require "extra care in approaching, overtaking or passing". Lights do not imply authority, cannot be used to assert right-of-way and do not permit unsafe parking for non-emergencies (filming a tornado would not be a valid 'emergency', but stopping for a downed tree, power line or flooded road would).

As a chaser, I have found the need for these lights to be very rare - however, when the occasion arises, they are a useful tool. Akin to a box of flares or reflectors, they are equipment that when used properly in the right situation, can be an asset to the safety of both the chaser and the driving public.

Some studies have shown that red, white or blue lights (illegal colors for civilian use in most states) can actually have a 'moth to a flame' effect to an impaired driver (drunk, medicated or sleep deprived), while ambers have been shown to be the most effective in increasing visibility in general. Given that lights are widely used (and even required by law) on other types of vehicles with similar driving patterns, it follows that rear-facing amber lights have a legitimate justification on a chaser or spotter vehicle.

Legality and significance of supplemental lights

In most states, supplemental amber lighting usage rules are synonymous with those of four-way hazards - the conditions you would use your four-ways would permit the supplemental light usage. The prohibition of "flashing lights", as most state laws say, would include your hazards if taken in the same context to include supplemental lighting. Some states do make the distinction, banning them outright to non-permitted individuals - so checking with one's state laws before installation would be prudent.

Probably most importantly, supplemental lighting is not a symbol of authority, importance, 'coolness', or status to anyone. They are utilitarian, in use on countless other types of mundane, everyday vehicles and even required on many of them by law. The detractors seem to miss this point. If lights are so useless, so bad, so much of a liability, then why are they in such widespread use on virtually all types of vehicles that tend to drive slowly and pull over in unusual places (tow trucks, mail carriers, plow/salt trucks, construction vehicles, school buses, oversized load escorts, etc). I would actually not be surprised if lawmakers started *requiring* chasers and spotters to have some form of supplemental lights and USE them when pulled over! When you look at the reasons they are used everywhere else, chasers and spotters present a nearly identical driving pattern. Declaring that they are totally inappropriate is a difficult position to defend.

Either way, I believe the most important thing to keep in mind throughout this debate is that no one else in the world cares when they see a vehicle with lights - it means nothing to them. I don't see any tow truck driver groupies or flag car fan clubs! Chasers are the only ones who raise such a "stink" about it internally - like many chasing controversies, it's a total non-issue to the real world.

Simple 12v rotating amber beacon (available at any auto parts store) - not recommended due to forward-facing visibility

Reasonable use

Since the only justification for supplemental light usage is for visibility to drivers approaching from behind, the only legitimately useful types for chasing/spotting are rear-facing ambers. This would include arrow sticks (pictured below), rear window-mounted flashers or taillight strobes. These are modest, practical solutions, most likely to not be abused nor raise red flags as to their legality. They do increase visibility of a slow-moving chaser in heavy precip, or a chaser/spotter slowing down to pull off of a high-speed road in an unconventional place. Those are the only justifications for light usage in most states' laws, that is, alerting drivers behind you that you are slowing down/traveling slower or stopping/stopped in an unusual location.

I don't think full 360-degree lightbars are a good idea (I have one but don't use it any more), nor are any type of forward-facing light. This would include rotators, headlight strobes or any light that shines to the front of the vehicle full or part time. There is simply no need or justification for forward-facing lights in storm chasing. The only thing a front-facing light does is potentially make people in front of you think that they should yield right-of-way, even if that is not your intention. There is never a legal reason where that can happen in any state.

Currently, I employ two small amber flashers mounted in my rear window. They also double as reflectors, increasing my visibility without having to be switched on. They face rearward, and I have occasion no more than two or three times per year to use them. Are they a necessary requirement to chase? Probably not. Helpful in certain situations I find myself in occasionally as a chaser? Absolutely. I have these lights for the same reasons I have a first aid kit in the truck - not expecting to ever have to employ it, but planning ahead for the unforseen but occasionally inevitable.

For the chaser considering or currently employing supplemental lights, I would recommend removing any forward-facing and/or red, blue or clear units, and sticking to simple rear-facing ambers. For the chaser who prefers to stay as inconspicuous as possible, rear-window mounted units are available that perform the function. Above all, be modest with the type/number of lights you use and how you use them. Going overboard could not only get you in trouble with the law, but may put you in a position of contempt/ridicule within the chase community.

Further study

If you are in law enforcement or involved with highway safety, I'd be interested to hear your professional opinion on storm spotters or chasers using supplemental hazard lighting - feel free to post in the comments or send me a private email. At some point, I will put together a more comprehensive, journalistically-styled article on the subject.

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The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:

FINALLY somebody that may put an end to the stupid debate. Lights are useful, absolutely, they just require balance and responsibility. Personally, I have an LED advisor in my back window though it's red/amber/amber/red so it's very rarely used (used a few times when asked to do so by law enforcement). Aside from that, I have a mini amber bar which I painted the front black and just put it on the back so it only faces the rear, increases 180 degree visibility up high, that's all you need. Almost 90% of the time, you won't need lights chasing. Like you respectfully said, they're a tool, just like any other they have their use and must be used responsibly. See you out there! - Kyle Soldani, KD0LDK
- Posted by Kyle Soldani from Manhattan, KS
Excellent writeup about this debate. I pretty much share the same view. They are ok with me when used properly but of course you got these wannabe super heros blinding everyone with them as they try and pretend to save the world from approaching shelf clouds.
- Posted by Adam Lucio
This is a nice opinion piece and a good read. I have a few minor comments. I have been chasing the Plains since 1987 and was a VORTEX1 participant in 1994-1995. We were required to run amber lights on the VORTEX vehicles only when in data collection mode. The mobile mesonets required smooth steady driving speeds of no greater than 40 mph in order to keep the impact of the vehicle envelope on the wind instrumentation to a minimum. Because that speed was usually below the speed limit, we ran the amber lights in those conditions. But did VORTEX initiate this phenomenon with the chaser masses? Television media chasers employed lightbars long before VORTEX. I encountered them the first time during my first year chasing based out of Norman, Oklahoma (1989), and I assume they were a few years around prior to that. In addition, many local storm spotters are also members of first response units (fire, medical) that used their festooned vehicles for spotting. The models being emulated by today’s “lightbar” chasers are less likely the research chasers with their single small amber whirligigs.
- Posted by Greg Stumpf
I think they are a good idea with todays distracted by everythings drivers! I know that when I can see flashing lights easily up ahead it gives me ample time to move over a lane or at least slow down
- Posted by Michael Thompson
Thanks for the comments! Kyle, I like the idea of using paint to block the front of a rotator unit, that's a good option. Greg, I appreciate your first-hand account about the VORTEX vehicles. It would be interesting to investigate further which faction had more of an influence on the modern-day phenomenon, the research cars or spotters. I'm wondering if due to the media attention garnered by the NSSL vehicles, that they had a farther-reaching impact than local spotters. I'm speaking from where I could find photographic examples of or can personally remember lights being used in a chasing context (the old NSSL vans are what comes to mind). Admittedly those coming from the Plains region might have more exposure and 'inspiration' from the spotter/first responder component.
- Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL
Im a stormchaser and I can understand this debate! I have a mini light bar, dash light, hideaways and a rear bar but its all for work not chasing. I work for a plow and construction escort company plus involved with local emergency management! I don't' use my lights while chasing unless absolutely necessary but i still get looks for having them. If I wasn't required to have them for work and local EMA I wouldn't have them at all. They are all amber.
- Posted by Sam Epstein from Massachusetts
I have a full size lightbar on my truck. i have to disagree a LITTLE here During times of lower visibility, i will turn the light bar onto a setting called "CRUISE MODE" what this does it turns the front and sides of the bar onto a steady amber light. (picture the lights on a semi cab or bigger pickup and sometimes along the sides of trailers) they do not blink or flash in this mode. they just steady burn in the same manner as having extra Marker or clearance lights on the cab of your truck. there are several situations i think has added MUCH needed safety and Visibility. but it also does NOT DRAW ATTENTION. i also have to say that having 360 lighting being an OPTION can add another level of preparedness. there are several lights switching options for front and rear independently what if you come across a live power lines that are laying across the roadway? with my setup i could park at a close but safe distance and turn on both sides of the lightbar. both directions would want to be alerted to the hazard. rear faceing would only alert half of the affected area to the danger they may not see. i also want to stress that there are MODES i can use. and when i only need the REAR lights flashing for a stop. that is all i use. i do not agree with a 360 degree light that can not be user selected for front and rear
- Posted by JB from Midwest

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