Relax. This is not an article about unscrupulous people wearing trench coats. This is an article about flashing lights. Many vehicles lawfully have flashing light. In Illinois, police and fire services exclusively use flashing blue and red lights. But what about amber flashing lights? When can trucks use those on the road and be free from enforcement? Or are they forbidden? In recent weeks, the ITEA has received several phone calls and emails about this topic, so off we go (trench coats stay on, of course).
The terms “flashing” lights is synonymous and interchangeable with the terms “oscillating” or “rotating”. Each term means the same thing, but “flashing” will be used for simplicity in this article. It is probably not surprising to learn the law regarding flashing amber lights is 1) cumbersome, 2) full of exceptions, and 3) not located in one easy place in the Illinois Vehicle Code.
Like all things truck law, it must be difficult. The law starts by stating flashing amber lights are prohibited, but then lists out sixteen exceptions! Some of these exceptions are truck specific. The meat of the flashing amber light law is located in 625 ILCS 5/12-215. There are several exceptions for trucks listed in this section such as propane vehicles and mail delivery trucks. This article is going to look at three types of trucks with authority to use flashing amber lights.
Tow trucks are excepted in subsection (b)(1). For tow trucks to be allowed to flash amber lights, the vehicle must be at roadside hoisting or picking up another vehicle. The author of this law made a critical language error by defining “towing” as a vehicle which is “carrying” a vehicle. Towing is when a vehicle is being pulled behind another. Carrying is when a vehicle is carried on top of another. The generic use of the term “tow truck” can refer to trucks that tow, carry or do both.
When a “tow truck” is only carrying another vehicle, it cannot use flashing amber lights except at roadside when hoisting it up on the bed. However, when a tow truck is actually towing a vehicle behind, it may use flashing amber lights not only at roadside while picking up the vehicle, but also while moving down the highway with the vehicle in tow. There is a limitation to this exception though. Once the combination is moving on the highway, the flashing amber lights cannot be used except when headlights are required.
Garbage trucks are also exempt from the flashing amber light prohibition while picking up garbage. This applies to trucks equipped with either compactors or roll-off containers. The limitation is that the amber light can only be lit while the refuse is actually being collected. Residential curbside garbage pickup is perfect example of this. A residential garbage truck will make multiple stops in very short distances. As fork arms lift garbage high overhead, sometimes the garbage misses the truck and lands in the road. It is important for passing motorists to be warned by a flashing amber light.
Subsection (b)(6) allows government owned snow plows to flash amber lights. Subsection (b)(6.1) even allows privately owned snow plows to flash amber lights, but only when subcontracted to the government. But what about privately owned snow plows that are not working for the government?
Unfortunately, privately owned trucks equipped with snow plow blades, not working for the government, are not given the authority to have flashing amber lights in this section. However, the very first sentence of this statute says “Except as otherwise provided in this Code” which means the entire Illinois Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/1-111.2). Could there be another section in the IVC that allows private snow plows to have flashing lights?
The answer is “yes”, there most certainly is. In 625 ILCS 5/15-102, the legislature sets the maximum legal width at 8’6” for all vehicles and their loads. Back up a few paragraphs to 15-101(c) and the legislature exempts those vehicles involved in snow and ice removal operations from legal size and weight. The important thing to remember is the snow plow blade must overwidth. If the snow plow blade exceeds 8’6”, but less than 12’ in width, the driver is REQUIRED to have the flashing amber light activated. An 18” square flag mounted on the driver’s corner of the snow plow blade must also be present. If the blade is legal width or less, the flashing amber lights must be off when operating on the highway.
Unfortunately some police officers limit their understanding of this topic to this one section alone and wrongfully issue tickets to snow plow drivers lawfully operating trucks with flashing amber lights. Just as unfortunate are the truck drivers who assume just because they are operating snow plows in a storm they can always have flashing amber lights on.