Police light bars with a message

When installed, the system has 50 pre-programmed messages — such as “ACCIDENT” — from which officers can choose depending on the incident they’re addressing


The New York City Police Department has deployed light bars from Whelen with light-emitting diode (LED) message panels for their marked vehicles. The rollout affects Highway Patrol division cars first, with plans to equip all 2,600 of their marked vehicles.

When installed, the system has 50 pre-programmed messages — such as “ACCIDENT” — from which officers can choose depending on the incident they’re addressing. The units are programmable to suit the needs of the situation.

These LED message boards are thin rectangular attachments to the regular light bars, fitting between the emergency lights and the vehicle roof.

The New York City Police Department has deployed light bars from Whelen with light-emitting diode (LED) message panels for their marked vehicles. The rollout affects Highway Patrol division cars first, with plans to equip all 2,600 of their marked vehicles.
The New York City Police Department has deployed light bars from Whelen with light-emitting diode (LED) message panels for their marked vehicles. The rollout affects Highway Patrol division cars first, with plans to equip all 2,600 of their marked vehicles.

Led by LEDs
LEDs used to be restricted to low-power gadgets like pocket calculators. They operate on very little power and produce almost no heat, which is where as much as 90 percent of the energy required to light an incandescent lamp goes. Early LEDs didn’t put out a lot of light, but they have gotten much brighter, especially if they’re deployed in clusters. LEDs have virtually replaced incandescent lamps in vehicle taillights, traffic signals and flashlights. They’ll operate for thousands of hours before needing replacement.

Message panels provide more information to pedestrians and motorists than warning lights alone. In a press release announcing the initiative, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly explained, “Our tests showed that the blue color messages are highly visible to pedestrians and motorists, in daylight and at night. Eventually this technology will be installed on all marked police cars, vans and SUVs throughout the city.”

A driver approaching backed-up traffic can see a patrol car’s overhead lights up ahead and know there is some kind of event taking place, but has no way of telling the difference between a traffic stop and a major accident. A message panel with something like “INTERSECTION CLOSED” allows drivers to turn off and seek another route before they’re trapped between intersections.

Officers trying to close a roadway to give breathing room for a high-risk stop could put up a “DO NOT PASS” warning. Off of the highway, a “GAS LEAK” message could prevent an explosion sparked from a careless smoker. Patrol cars blocking access to a building with “BOMB THREAT” could save their officers distraction from curious citizens when that message is displayed.

Getting more creative, with the ability to show reversed characters in front-facing message boards and scroll text, the following messages could have real possibilities:

• At traffic lights with inattentive drivers: “IT’S THE SKINNY PEDAL ON THE RIGHT.”
• For bad drivers you don’t have time to stop: “IF I WASN’T RESPONDING TO A CALL YOU’D BE GETTING A TICKET.”
• And when a sporting-minded driver decides that your carefully-laid flare pattern is a motocross course: “CHASE CAR ON OTHER END.”

In all seriousness, these light bars could prove very useful in any number of situations.

About the author

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice.

He can be reached at tim@timdees.com.

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