Roadshow: Wipers on, lights on — for cops, too

By Gary Richards

Posted: 02/23/2010 05:25:51 PM PST

Updated: 02/24/2010 09:04:51 AM PST


More rain is rolling into the Bay Area today, potentially turning the commute nasty as cars kick up waves of water, and visibility approaches pea soup level.

So wipers on, lights on.

Except "... if you're a cop?”

"It's irritating enough to see a fair amount of cars without their lights on when it's raining, but it's even more irritating when I see most Santa Clara and San Jose police officers without their lights on during the rain," said Robert Jansons of San Jose. "Isn't it required by law? Someone should tell them!"

Police are exempt from the hands-free cell phone law, but there is no blanket exemption for the "wipers on, lights on" law that took effect in 2005 and carries a fine of about $135.

Readers flooded Roadshow with complaints last month after a series of storms, calling out sheriff's deputies, the Highway Patrol, Caltrans workers and cops from Santa Cruz to San Francisco to Fremont.

Showers are expected this morning, tapering off by midday before returning on Friday and Saturday. With more rain en route, the complaints may roll in again.

"We were driving westbound on Blossom Hill Road in the rain and there was a police car sitting right there" at a traffic light, said Glennis Bodenhamer. "No lights on, no nada. Just not good. They don't follow the rules."

Why, she and many others ask, do so many police ignore this sensible rule?

The answers aren't great.

"We attempt to lead by example and use our headlamps as required," said Los Altos Sgt. Matt Hartley. "But on occasion, as with all drivers, officers forget."

"An honest mistake," said CHP Officer Sarah Jackson.

Some cops offer the multi-tasking excuse. They get in and out of their cars all day long, constantly turning headlights on and off while focused on catching the next crook, arranging times to meet with witnesses or responding to the next call. With the exception of the traffic units, most cops are not driving around actively looking for driving violations.

They may turn on their lights 9 out of 10 times, say some. And it's the one time they don't that motorists notice.

"I will not make excuses for officers," said retired San Jose cop Joe Wicker, "but they are multi-tasking in their cars, with radio traffic, computer displays of calls and GPS maps integrated into the systems.

"There is a lot going on, but attention to the road should take priority, especially in the rain. No excuses. I would not want to be the officer stopping a car for no headlights in the rain only to have the driver point out that my lights aren't on."

One patrol officer who asked not to be identified will sometimes get on his car radio when he spots a fellow officer driving with his lights off. He'll act innocent, asking what the vehicle code number is for this offense — hoping the other cop will take the hint and turn on his lights.

"Mostly," this cop said, "I get no reply even though I know the message goes through."

Maybe now, after reading how this irritates so many motorists, that message will pack some oomph.

Have a gripe, minor annoyance or major problem with transportation? Contact Gary Richards at or 408-920-5335.

Rule applies to everybody

Drivers must turn on headlights if wipers are in continuous use. Daytime running lights are not enough.

h  Fine: About $135. It is not a moving violation.

h  Police: Rules apply to them as well.

h  Except: Lights do not need to be on if an officer is coming up on another officer making a stop, to avoid "silhouetting," or making an easy target, of the other officer.

h  And: Lights do not need to be on when driving up on a suspect"s vehicle or a place where a crime is occurring.