Guest Column: Vehicle Safety Issues

Vehicle Safety Issues

David B. Shoar
St. Johns County Sheriff

Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s motorists in Florida were required to have their vehicles inspected annually; however, as the state grew, it proved to be time consuming and motorists found themselves waiting in long lines to get their car or truck checked.

Often a minor problem sent the motorist to a garage to have a problem corrected, only to repeat the inspection process. In 1981, Florida’s Governor and State Legislature ended the yearly vehicle safety checks.

Some 25+ years later, law enforcement officers continue making traffic stops for such things as burned-out lights, a cracked windshield, or worn tires. Many times these conditions are met with a warning notice and the operator is requested to fix the problem.

This is the most common type of vehicle safety issue we deal with, but I would like to share a few more that have emerged in recent years that create different concerns for the safety of others and the performance of law enforcement.

Car and truck enthusiasts enjoy customizing their vehicles as a hobby. I enjoy attending custom car shows, myself; however, some of the customization we see on the roadways is not approved for street driving.

One issue that we are seeing is the covering of license tags with dark plastic covers. Many times this is done because the operator simply likes the way it looks. However, some are making the tags unreadable in an attempt to avoid identification during criminal activity.

Law enforcement depends on eyewitness accounts of events reported to us, especially in critical events involving vehicles. If the only description that can be given is that of a white vehicle, for example, the search becomes too broad.

Florida law states that all plates must be free of grease, mud, mutilation and defacement. The tag must be plainly visible and legible from 100 feet. Nothing shall be placed on the face of the plate except the annual renewal sticker. Plate holders should in no way obscure any of the numbers or letters.

In the past several years, simple window tinting that was approved to help beat Florida’s heat during the summer months, has taken on a new depth. Some windows we are now encountering not only have a layer of illegal tint, they have multiple layers on one piece of glass.

When stopped, some drivers have admitted to deputies they have problems seeing out of their vehicles during daylight hours, let alone on a dark rainy night. Some have stated they don’t drive “this vehicle” at night because “you can’t see out.”

In one shooting investigation, the driver had spray painted windows to keep anyone from seeing inside. Moreover, a trend of tinting the entire front windshield is also becoming quite popular, although this is not permitted.

You may recall the recent death of a Brevard County Deputy, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop. During the subsequent arrest of the suspects, officers commented on their radio system that they were looking through the front windshield of the suspect’s vehicle to see if he was attempting to surrender.

The deputies simply could not see through any other window due to the tint. This is not the way law enforcement officers want to approach suspects, but it did reveal that the suspect had his hands pressed against the (non-tinted) windshield.

Lastly, there are increasing incidents of car owners changing the color of their driving, directional, and other safety lighting. We have encountered red, blue, green or purple headlights, taillights and tag lights customized to match vehicle colors or to coordinate with a theme, and even some front and rear lights either tinted or spray-painted black.

Under Florida law, front lights must be white or amber (fog lights) with headlights always being white. Some of the newer factory installed lights do have a bluish appearance due to their intensity, and they too are legal; while other high intensity lights are not legal or the glass bulb has simply been colored.

Lights on the back of the vehicle can only be red for the tail and brake lights. Turn signals may be red or amber. Taillights should emit a red light plainly visible to 1000 feet. The license plate light must be white as well and be clearly visible to 50 feet.

Any decorative lighting beneath the vehicle or any other custom lighting must not be red or blue — these colors are reserved for emergency public safety vehicles.

My deputies have to make tough decisions regarding issuing citations; weighing a tough economy against the violation that caused a traffic stop. My advice is, if any of these conditions exist on your vehicles, research the issue and make any corrections necessary before you operate on public roads.

As always, I welcome your comments and appreciate suggestions for future columns. Please feel free to contact me by e-mail at dshoar@sjso.org

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