On one hand, it seems so simple. The rule says that cars need to have a hazard light button that, when you push it, causes the warning lights to flash. On the other hand, bureaucracy doesn't make anything simple, and the rules provide both opportunity and hurdles to bringing a new kind of flashing yellow light to future vehicles.
The word "hazard" appears prominently in Rule 108 of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), but the key is that those lights need to "[enhance] the conspicuity of motor vehicles on the public roads so that their presence is perceived and their signals understood, both in daylight and in darkness or other conditions of reduced visibility," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The trouble is, the way these hazard lights work hasn't changed much in over half a century, according to Stephen Powers, co-founder and chief operating officer of Emergency Safety Solutions (ESS). "The current hazard light system was invented in 1951 and hasn't been innovated on since," he told Car and Driver. "Bulbs back then were all incandescent, they were running off of mechanical relay switches, etc. Today, they still do what was possible back then."
Today's LED lights offer much more flexibility than what headlights were capable of in the 1950s, and that has allowed ESS to develop a new method for hazard lights to flash when a vehicle is immobilized on the side of the road. In short, they flash much, much faster.
There's a good reason—many reasons, actually—that ESS wants to go through the regulatory hassle of figuring out how to bring new hazard lights to vehicles. The group works with NFL player Chris Smith of the Las Vegas Raiders, who lost his fiancée, Petara Cordero, in September 2019 after the two of them had a tire blowout in their Lamborghini, causing it to spin and hit a highway median. They were unharmed, but Cordero was then hit by an oncoming driver who didn't see the car on the side of the road. Smith wants to promote ESS's technology not just to honor Cordero's life, but also to help prevent similar accidents. ESS says this kind of "preventable accident happens every seven minutes on U.S. roads today, with a new study showing an increase in frequency in recent years." Last November, ESS identified and submitted the new safety case to the federal government, saying that it caused between two and four deaths every day in the United States.
Activating ESS's updated hazard lights system would happen in one of two ways. First, just as with today's system, a driver could push the button on the dashboard in order to turn the lights on, but it would require two presses to get them to flash at the higher rate (the first press would turn on the flashing lights just as they do today). Second, the system would turn on automatically when the car determines an incident has happened, for example when airbags have been deployed.
The key difference, other than automatic deployment, is the speed at which the hazard lights flash, and the trick is that other drivers will almost literally not be able to ignore them. "When you flash a red or amber light faster than 4 Hz, or four times per second, human beings pick that up in our peripheral vision," Powers said. "We can't help but notice it. It's an instinct." This would make stopped vehicles easier to see and, even if you can't avoid hitting an immobilized car, seeing it sooner might give you an extra half a second to hit the brakes, which means you'll be moving slower when you do make contact, Powers said.
To bring the new lights to cars, ESS has been working with regulators in the U.S. and Europe, as well as around a half-dozen automakers who have expressed "great interest," Powers said. He would not give a timeline for when this technology might be available, but in the best-case scenario, it'd be early next year. NHTSA is currently looking the company's proposal over, and: "It's not a request that is sitting somewhere on the bottom of a stack and they just haven't gotten to it yet," he said. "They are actively working on it now. Could it be done by the end of this year, in terms of our U.S. regulatory work? Yes, that's very possible."
Once the regulators sign off on the technology, then it's up to the automakers to put it into their cars. Powers said that for vehicles with the right hardware—like LED head- and taillights, a hazard button that's not a binary on/off switch, and over-the-air software capabilities—new code could be pushed out in a few months. Even for OEMs that would need to install new software at a dealership or adding the ESS lights during production, the timeline is not that long and the cost is not that great, Powers said. In other words, after 70 years, hazard lights might finally be getting an upgrade.