Some Light Warning

Some Light Warning

I have been exposed to a new phenomenon over the course of this past month or two of travels on the road in Armenia, that of flashing one’s headlights to approaching cars to warn them of police up ahead. It works quite simply: if you are in a car, and a car coming towards you on the highway flashes its headlights for a moment, that means there is a cop not too far away.It had never occurred to me that such a practice existed, only my friend Zareh pointed it out during a road trip as something which is common in Iran as well.Coming back from Gyumri recently – in a car which had, by the way, a radar detector! – this flashing got me thinking: what’s the point? So what if the cop is there? Well, straighten yourself out. Drive within the speed limit. Wear that seat belt.

But these are laws, and laws ought to be followed anyway. If you are breaking them, it’s good for the police to catch you and fine you for it. This is the idealist speaking, of course. We all know that laws can be over-careful to the point of being impractical, and that the cops can be in pursuit of other things in their policing.

So, this headlight-flashing phenomenon, is it in fact citizen policing, as a friend suggested, that is to say, diligence on the part of citizens towards one another as a gesture of goodwill?

Or is it a case of honour among thieves? All the drivers in the world are conspiring with one another, then, to gain advantage over the police. Not so much “put on your seatbelt” as “have your too many passengers in the back bend low and hide”.

Or is it a reaction towards ineptitude and corruption from the police themselves?

I imagine it is a little bit of each of the above. I would love to know just how widespread this practice is, though. Armenia and Iran are apparently on the list, but is it a regional thing, a Soviet thing, a Middle Eastern one…? Does it exist even in countries with a strong tradition of rule of law?

A funny note on which to end. As with many roads in mountainous Armenia, I was recently on a bus going on a highway that was twisting and turning through ridges and passes. A car approaching us flashed its headlights, just as it took the turn and noticed the cops hidden from its view because of the bend in the road. The driver, realising what had happened, did not miss a beat and immediately raised his arms in greeting, saluting to the police as the car sped by. I guess the cops need some light warning from time to time as well.