Flasher used by undercover/off-duty cops in movies

Especially older movies – it was this round flasher that they would pull out of their glove compartment and place on the top of their car. What is that called? Is it used in real life? If you see someone behind you with one of those, should you pull over?

Starsky and Hutch used one. I sure as hell haven’t ever seen one in real life.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the “Red Light Bandit” and his abuse of this device to pull over and rape women was a factor leading to it being phased out.

I don’t think they have specific name, besides magnetic warning light. These days something like this would probably be used. I knew one cop who had an LED warning light that strapped to the fold down mirror on the passenger side, so you couldn’t really see it until he flipped it down and turned on the light.

I’ve seen what I assumed were ‘unmarked’ police cars that could flash their headlights & hazard lights (alternately left & right), which along with a hidden megaphone was enough to pull people over. Is that a common thing?

I imagine nowadays it wouldn’t be hard to make an LED headlight array that doesn’t use colored filters but can be red & blue enough to be obvious to anyone in front of them.

I don’t know the specific name. You can get red or orange ones at any auto parts store around me. Plow and tow trucks use them.

But also around me all the states use blue lights for the police. If you see a flashing blue light you pull over. If for any reason you are skeptical of a ‘police’ car pulling you over, you can continue driving to a safe place to pull over such as a police station or otherwise a public area. Certainly might not endear you to an actual police officer but it’s within your rights. You certainly can’t just ignore a blue light. Anyone who is not a police officer using blue lights on a vehicle is subject to criminal charges for impersonating a police officer.

In states where police use red flashers I’m not sure how things work out in general. How do they prevent non-police vehicles from using flashing red lights? Every car in America is equipped with flashing red lights(blinkers)

Not sure if this could be considered a good source, but Stephen King, in the novel “From a Buick Eight”, which centered around a troop of the Pennsylvania state police, called them “Kojak lights”. PSP incidentally was one of the last large police forces to use a single red bubble light on their cars instead of the blue or multi-colored light bars.

I have one of these red ones buried someplace in the garage. Used it when I was an EMT.

Back when I was a wee sprout, my Uncle Robert had one of those. He was town constable of the tiny hamlet where they lived, and his car did double duty - ‘on’ the job with the light on top, and ‘off’ the job with it tucked away inside.

I think in most states, police vehicles are the only ones allowed to display a flashing blue light or flashing red lights on the front of the vehicle. If I had to call it something, I might say* gumdrop light* or Mars light.

A police detective I know had that sort of light. He didn’t drive a marked car, so when he needed to get somewhere fast I guess he’d pull that out and get through traffic faster. They are still probably used by volunteer firefighters or smaller police departments. These days of course undercover police cars have bright LED lights hidden in the grill and back window etc.

Here is one such light, plugs in to a 12V port and has magnets to stick to the roof: http://www.swps.com/coddas660.html

The round ones are called beacons. Square ones are called light bars.

Here is a modern one that uses LEDs instead of lights, but it is a round hockey puck kinda thing and you can get a magnetic mount for it so you can play Starsky and Hutch if you want (well, if you’re a cop you can, sales of these sorts of things are restricted to law enforcement personnel only).


If you google “magnetic beacon” you can find a bunch of them.

Just had to mention - when I read your subject line I thought you were talking about human flashers, i.e. people that expose themselves, and was wondering what kind of movies you were watching! :eek:

Me too. I was wondering what use a human flasher would be to an undercover (ha!) cop.

Those are called Wig Wags and they are extremely common on both marked and unmarked squads.

The colored strobe light the OP is talking about is still used on unmarked cars. Many unmarks have covert red/blue lights in the grill and in the rear windows, sometimes on the back of the inside rear view mirror (they can be seen through the windshield).
A strobe has a magnet on it and is slapped on the roof. It usually is powered by a power outlet (cigarette lighter) or by battery.

Detectives who are using their own car use them because many times their own car is not set up in a squad package (no lights installed anywhere) and arriving at a crime scene the strobe may be the only thing identifying a Toyota Camery as a police vehicle.

Personally, I’d never even consider pulling over for an unmarked car, regardless of what lights are flashing. I’d call 9/11 and confirm the identity of the car behind me, then ask for a marked car to be dispatched before I’d pull over.

Lots of doctors in the UK will have green versions when they are on emergency calls - it doesn’t grant any privileges or exemptions from traffic laws (like a blue light does) but it does help get other traffic out of the way.

I second this. Call 911 (or whatever the emergency number is where you live) and they should be able to confirm if it is a police car. They can also tell the car that you are going to pull over at the next safe spot so they don’t think you are on the run. They can also dispatch someone if it isn’t a police car.

FTR, laws on volunteer fire department folks and tow/plow truck/etc lighting vary by state, just like 90% of US laws.
In some states it’s actually illegal for a volunteer fire guy to use ANYTHING besides standard lights on his car. In others, they can only use amber lights. The guys in those states are justifiably annoyed…

I always heard them called “Kojak lights” as a kid growing up in Texas.

ETA: Found this from police.com. :slight_smile: Kojak Lights

Regarding volunteer firefighters: A friend was over from Europe and saw a pickup flying down the highway with blue lights blazing all over the truck. He wanted to know what was up and I explained to him that, in the USA, driving is a right and not a privilege. Even complete idiots have a right to drive. However, those who are particularly hazardous have to show a blue light when driving. The more incompetent the driver, the more lights he has to display.