When should you use your hazard warning lights?

You’re late dropping the kids off at school. The only space outside has yellow zig zag lines – but it’ll be fine if you just pop your hazards on for a minute, won’t it?

In this article we’ll take a look at hazard warning lights, when you should and shouldn’t use them, and how parking illegally could get your car towed away – leaving you searching for impounded car insurance in order to get it released.

Where to find your hazard lights, inside and outside your car

It's perhaps useful to start our explanation of hazard warning lights by reminding ourselves where to find the controls for hazard lights on modern cars – and where these lights display on the outside of the car.
Inside your car, the hazard light button typically features two white triangles, one inside the other, on a red background. Alternatively, you may find two red triangles on a black background. The hazard switch will be located somewhere on your dashboard – perhaps near your air vents or stereo controls. Hazard lights will activate with a single press of the button – a second press will switch them off again.
And where are the hazard lights on the outside of your car, and how do they behave once switched on? Well, in fact, hazard lights make use of exactly the same bulbs as your indicator lights – the lights that you use to show other road users when you are about to turn left or right.
The difference is that, whereas with indicators only one side of the car will illuminate at any one time, when you activate your hazard lights all those bulbs, on both the left and right sides, will flash 'in phase'(simultaneously).


So, when should I use my hazard lights?

The clue is in the name, really – you should use hazard warning lights either to warn other road users of a hazard up ahead, or to alert those road users when your vehicle is itself presenting a hazard.
Let's go into each of these scenarios in a little more detail.

Warning other road users of a hazard up ahead

You may use your hazard warning lights if you are travelling on a motorway or unrestricted dual carriageway (i.e., one subject to the relevant national speed limit of 70mph) and you have detected an obstruction up ahead that you need to warn following drivers about.
This hazard could be, for example, another vehicle that has come to a stop in (or even near) moving traffic, or simply a vehicle moving slower than the flow of traffic – a lorry climbing a steep hill, for example. Or there could be congestion up ahead.

In all of these cases, you should warn drivers behind you of what's coming up, so that they can brake early and be prepared – and so that they can, in turn, warn drivers behind them.

But hold on: wouldn’t you be braking for the hazard anyway, meaning that your brake lights would do the job of alerting drivers behind you of a hazard up ahead?

True – but remember that brake lights will light up in the same manner whatever speed you brake at, so there is no way for those drivers behind you to tell how fast you are having to brake – and how fast they will need to brake in turn, to avoid a collision with you.

Adding your hazard lights is an effective way of alerting drivers behind you that you are braking heavily, and that they should prepare to do the same – after using their own hazards to alert drivers behind them. 
Remember, also, that you should only leave your hazards on for just long enough for other drivers to notice the warning – typically, around five seconds.

A word about towing

You must not switch on your hazards when being towed unless you're on a motorway or unrestricted dual carriageway and you need to warn other drivers of something up ahead (you should do so in this instance, as it will be your vehicle lights, not the towing vehicle's lights, that drivers behind you will see).

Using hazards when your car is stationary

The other scenario in which you are allowed to use your hazard lights is when your car is stationary. The reason to use them is to warn other road users of a hazard (which could, in fact, be your car).

It could be that your car has broken down; you may have been involved in an accident; you might have run out of fuel; or you might have been forced to stop by something blocking the carriageway ahead of you – an accident or some large debris that’s come off of another vehicle, for example.

In all these cases, your vehicle is now causing an obstruction to oncoming road users, and you should warn them in good time. Switch on your hazard lights, so that they can take the appropriate action, such as indicating and steering around you where possible, or braking in good time, or even diverting from the route altogether if necessary.

You should then leave your hazard lights on until you are no longer obstructing the road – either because you have got started again, or been towed away, or because the obstruction ahead of you has been cleared away.

It's worth noting that the police do have the right to tow away a car that has broken down, causing an obstruction. In this case, you will need some specialist insurance, known as impounded car insurance, when it comes to retrieving your vehicle from the pound.

When shouldn’t you use hazard warning lights?

Unfortunately, there are many instances of drivers using hazard lights inappropriately. We thought it might be useful to run through one or two of the situations where many drivers fall into the trap of using their hazards incorrectly, so that you can avoid making the same mistakes.
For instance, you should never use hazard lights as an excuse for dangerous or illegal parking. Why not? For two reasons – partly, because you should not be parking in that dangerous or illegal place in the first place, and no amount of incorrect light usage will make that acceptable.

This breach of parking restrictions is another scenario in which police do have the power to impound your car. Once again, you will require impounded car insurance to get the vehicle back. Insurance Factory can get you a quick and easy quote if this has happened to you.
The second reason that you shouldn't use hazards to cover yourself when parking illegally is, simply, that hazards must only be used in the scenarios we've outlined above.
As another example, you shouldn’t use your hazards as a quick 'thank you' message to, say, another driver who has let you out of a junction or who has waited to allow you through a narrow passing place.

Incidentally, most drivers will avoid using hazards and will simply flash their headlights to thank another motorist – or to indicate to them that it's safe for them to pull into or out of a junction. The latter practice is widespread – but if you read your Highway Code, you'll find that it is not recommended.

Rule 110 of the Code makes it clear that headlights should only be flashed to warn other road users of your presence: no other message should be conveyed via flashing lights.

What is the reasoning behind this? Simply that these signals, as they don't have an official meaning, are open to misinterpretation. Is that a 'thank you!' that you've signalled to the other driver, or a warning? Or an invitation to pull out?

Furthermore, in the case of flashing your lights to invite another driver to emerge ahead of you, this may not be a safe decision you are taking on their behalf. You may think it's safe for the other driver to pull out, but you might have missed something – a pedestrian, a cyclist, another driver – in your blind spot. So you should not use the 'flashing headlights' signal to signal to another driver they may pull out.

Similarly, you should not always trust that another driver issuing the invitation to you has taken in all the road conditions around them and ensured your safety.

Using hazards when parking or stopping

So, are you allowed to park on double yellow lines, or the yellow zig zag markings outside a school, if you have left your hazard lights on? Will the act of leaving your hazards on protect you from a parking fine or other sanction?

The short answer is: no. You should not park on double yellow lines (although you may stop briefly on them – we'll come to this in a minute), and you should never park or even stop briefly on the yellow zig zag markings outside schools.

The reason for this is that by parking here you are creating an obvious safety hazard and blind spot in an area where, at certain times of day, lots of cars will be passing and lots of children will be crossing the road.

Children may attempt to cross the road beside your parked car, and will get a drastically diminished view of the road to the left and right. Passing cars, for their part, may not see children crossing – because of your car obstructing their view until it’s too late.

Parking is not permissible in either of these instances – and leaving hazard lights illuminated will in no way make it any less illegal. Remember that any form of dangerous, illegal or obstructive parking can result in the police seizing or impounding your vehicle. In this case you will need specialist car insurance in order to get the vehicle released.


What about stopping briefly on double yellows?

You may stop briefly on double yellow lines, to pick up or drop off passengers or to pick up or set down heavy goods, provided that there are no other stopping restrictions displayed on signs or on the road surface.
The exception here is for blue badge holders, who may park on double yellow lines for a maximum of three hours – provided that they clearly display the blue badge in the vehicle.

However, once again, you shouldn't display hazard warning lights to show other road users why you are there. Using hazard lights will simply confuse other drivers. Take the situation where, for example, you pull in briefly and put your hazards on – and another car comes quickly and parks or stops in the gap right behind you.

This second car will block the view of most of your vehicle, for oncoming drivers. They won't see that you have all four hazards illuminating – they will only see the lights on the road side of your car, not the kerb side. As a result, they may think that you are indicating right to pull out into the flow of traffic, and may slow down unnecessarily, causing delay and confusion.

Instead, you should just use your indicator signal to show that you have pulled off the road momentarily.

Has your car been impounded? Call the specialists at Insurance Factory

In this article we’ve mentioned one or two scenarios in which your car might be impounded by the police. This can be a stressful situation – but, here at Insurance Factory, we aim to make it less so.

We will search our panel of insurers to find you the most appropriate  impounded car insurance cover when you need it most. This will allow you to retrieve your vehicle as soon as possible. Remember that when your car is seized, the police will ask for evidence of insurance in order to release it and traditional comprehensive cover will not be enough.
Our impounded car insurance can be arranged for 30 days: this will allow you to release your car from the pound and then carry on driving for the next month so there’s no rush to sort out other cover straight away.
Contact us to find out more.

Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.