Can We Put Flashing Lights and Sirens on Our Car?

Max asked this during a recent road trip where we saw all manner of lights on all manner of vehicles: yellow tow truck lights, police emergency lights, ambulance lights, red beacons announcing a wide load, even a yellow light on a nondescript car delivering mail.

The simple answer—at least in Minnesota and probably in most other states—is no. Well, maybe.

You cannot put a siren and flashing lights on your car, at least without being authorized by the state. But it’s a tiny bit complicated, depending on what you are doing and the color of the light you put on your car. So, let’s start out broadly with what Minnesota says you cannot do with lights on your car:

no vehicle shall be equipped, nor shall any person drive or move any vehicle or equipment upon any highway with any lamp or device displaying a red light or any colored light other than those required or permitted in this chapter.

That’s the general law. After that, we get the exceptions—that is, the lights that are “permitted in this chapter.” Thus, flashing lights are OK if you are driving “an authorized emergency vehicle, school bus, bicycle . . . road maintenance equipment, tow truck or towing vehicle, service vehicle, farm tractor, self-propelled farm equipment, rural mail carrier vehicle, funeral home vehicle, or on any vehicle as a means of indicating a right or left turn, or the presence of a vehicular traffic hazard requiring unusual care in approaching, overtaking or passing.”

For our purposes—putting flashing red or blue lights on our car—we cobviously have red brake lights in the back of the car to indicate we are turning left or right. No problem there. As I read the statute, though, we could likely add flashing lights to the top of the car if we were, say, stuck on the side of the road and felt compelled to tell other drivers to take “unusual care in approaching, overtaking or passing” us. For that, we’d probably be good to go in purchasing an STL Fusion 47-inch lightbar and having it available for just those emergency situations.

But so long as the front lights are white and amber and the back lights are amber and red. Oh, and so long as the lights are definitely not blue.

Blue lights are “prohibited on all vehicles except road maintenance equipment and snow removal equipment . . .” Oh, but blue lights are fine if you are an authorized emergency vehicle. And, if you install a one-inch diameter blue light as part of your back brake light, you are cool if you are driving a collector car or riding a motorcycle (but not if you use “low level” purple lights that “glow” on your motorcycle engine, like this guy). Inexplicably—at least to me—you can only have a flashing blue light on the front passenger side of an emergency vehicle, or on either side if it faces the rear of the emergency vehicle.

That leaves exceptions for yellow lights, or “flashing amber lights,” which are reserved for service vehicles (e.g., tow trucks and construction vehicles) and for self-propelled implements of husbandry (i.e., farm equipment and the like). Trash trucks are also allowed a “single amber gaseous discharge warning lamp,” but trash haulers can only use their warning lamps when collecting trash and when traveling at least 10 miles under the posted speed limit.

Whew. The bottom line? No driving down the road in your Toyota Camry, red and blue lights flashing. Or, as the case may be for Max, I cannot willy-nilly place police lights on top of my Mazda 5 microvan.

What About Sirens?

No. While horns are required on all motor vehicles in Minnesota, “they must not emit an unreasonably loud or harsh sound or a whistle.” But a “vehicle must not be equipped with, and a person shall not use upon a vehicle, any siren, whistle, or bell.” Only emergency vehicles get the privilege of using a siren that is:

capable of emitting sound audible under normal conditions from a distance of not less than 500 feet and of a type conforming to the federal certification standards for sirens . . . . However, the siren must not be used except when the vehicle is operated in response to an emergency call or in the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law, in which latter events the driver of the vehicle shall sound the siren when necessary to warn pedestrians and other drivers of the vehicle’s approach.

Also, for what it’s worth, you cannot even carry a siren on your private motorboat in Minnesota, let alone use it, without violating the law and possibly having the siren seized by the police.

And in case you are still jonesing to throw sirens and lights on your Buick and race around town all important and all, be advised you could be charged with impersonating a police officer, a misdemeanor in Minnesota (and at least a misdemeanor in most other states).

About Gregory D. Luce

Gregory Luce is the editor of Bitter Lawyer and a co-owner of Lawyerist Media, LLC. He still manages to handle a few pro bono cases and to provide ridiculous legal advice to his kids.