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High beams, brought to light

Is it ever illegal to use your high-beam headlights? Indeed, it is. Is it ever illegal to use your high-beam headlights? Indeed, it is. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF/file 2000)

I could probably -- no, positively -- write an entire column on inconsiderate driving. Maybe two columns, or three. We are in Boston, after all.

But we'll start off with one simple, yet maddening, move that consistently bugs people I meet: getting blinded by someone's high-beam headlights. There must be a law against keeping your high beams on while bearing down on an oncoming car, right? Well, there ought to be, everyone tells me.

The topic du jour is headlights -- bright ones, flashing ones, you name it.

The law says

We start off with the basic question: Is it ever illegal to use your high-beam headlights?

Indeed, it is.

The Code of Massachusetts Regulations, Chapter 540, Section 22, "Failure to Dim," says you must flick off your high beams when you're within 500 feet of a car approaching in the opposite direction -- a considerable distance.

You're also supposed to kill your high beams whenever "substantial" objects, such as other cars or people, are visible within a distance of 350 feet, or whenever you're in a Massachusetts Turnpike Authority tunnel.

"The operator shall regulate the headlamps so that no dangerous or dazzling light shall" shine, the law says.

The general fine is $35 for a first offense, $75 for a second, and $150 for a third, though the oncoming car rule doesn't apply to cars traveling on divided highways, said Lieutenant Dana Pagley, commander of the State Police traffic program section.

Reader Mike Wiecek of Brookline spotted a contractor's pickup truck last month with flashing headlights and strobe lights mounted in the grille, just like police cruisers have.

"That got me wondering about the laws and regulations governing what kind of emergency lights private citizens can mount on their cars," he wrote in. "Even the ice cream truck in our neighborhood has a rotating yellow light on his cab."

So, what's the rule?

State law prohibits average citizens from installing flashing red or blue lights on their vehicles, those colors being reserved for police and emergency responders. But flashing orange or amber lights are allowed, Pagley said.

"If you're a tow company or a plow truck, you have to have a flashing yellow light," he said. (As do ice cream trucks. It's an actual law!) "But you've got to be careful because the way the law reads, when you're underway as a private citizen, you must have two steady lights facing forward. If they're flashing, it could be illegal."

Pagley offered some examples. Highway construction vehicles can use flashing headlights, making them that much easier to see, if they're driving opposite traffic alongside a road. A vehicle escorting a wide-load hauler can use flashing lights as a warning device; airport trucks operating more than 5 feet into a runway must by law flash a yellow light.

Naturally, one can't use flashing headlights to move traffic out of your way, ala a police cruiser. You might be charged with impersonating a police officer, a criminal offense, or get hit with a flashing lights violation, a $35 fine.

Nor should you flash your headlights -- automatically or manually -- to warn other drivers that they're heading into a speed trap, Pagley said.

Technically, the practice isn't forbidden. But the police can be clever, too.

"Usually when we get people flashing their lights to warn of an officer with radar we ask, 'Well, were you flashing your lights?' They say no. So we say, 'Well, then, you've got a problem with your lights,' " Pagley said. Operating a vehicle with defective lights is a violation of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 90, Section 7, a $35 fine.

Blinded by the light

Reader Kevin Delaney of Plympton had these headlight queries. "It seems they are getting brighter and don't reflect down to the road like they used to. Also, are after-market or factory fog lights legal?" he asked.

Giorgio Petruzziello, owner of Mass Inspection on Mystic Avenue in Somerville, said a vehicle's headlights must point straight ahead for it to pass inspection. (If they point downward, they aren't as useful.)

Fog lights are legal so long as they meet Department of Transportation standards, he said. As for whether manufacturers are making brighter headlights, Petruzziello said, the answer is yes -- both blue-hued xenon and old-fashioned white ones alike.

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