Understanding Beacons and Strobes
— August 16, 2021 | 2 min read
Flashing warning lights such as beacons and strobes are fitted to vehicles to convey a specific warning to other road users. In this article, we’ll look at the most common warning light you will see on the road: the amber warning light.
What are amber warning lights used for?
Amber warning lights are used to identify potential hazards or obstructions on the road. This can include construction activities, maintenance work, slow and oversized vehicles, parked and broken down vehicles, and vehicles that stop frequently on the road. The lights come in a range of shapes and sizes, but the most common types you will see on the road are beacons, strobes, light boxes, light bars, warning lights and utility bars.
These lights can be permanently or temporarily fitted to a range of vehicles including roadside assistance vehicles, escort or pilot vehicles, road construction machinery, tow trucks or recovery vehicles, utility vehicles, agricultural machinery, trucks and road trains, and even school buses.
Importantly, the use of an amber warning lights does not give any priority over other traffic. An amber beacon or strobe is designed to let other road uses know there is an obstruction to the flow of traffic. It may indicate a potential hazard and therefore must only be used when the vehicle is standing or moving in a hazardous situation.
An amber strobe or beacon must not operate when the vehicle is in a non-hazardous situation and must be switchable by the driver or operator.
What is the difference between a beacon, strobe, and rotator?
Originally, rotary or revolving beacon lights (rotators) used three or four halogen spotlights set within a lens and attached to an electric motor via gears or rubber belts which rotated the entire assembly. These setups were reasonably effective. But were often heavy and susceptible to damage from heat, vibration, falls, or accidental impacts.
As technology progressed, a central halogen globe with a rotating lens (or mirror) replaced the original rotator. This beacon style of warning light – along with the static strobe tube design – is still commonly used. However, as these larger and less reliable lights are susceptible to wear from vibration and heat, they are increasingly being replaced by newer LED strobe technology.
The modern industry standard is the LED strobe. This more compact and more reliable unit utilises a series of intense, long-lasting LEDs which can be programmed to operate in specific patterns and at varying brightness levels for specific roles. The LED is combined with innovative reflector optics to maximise its effectiveness. It has no moving parts and offers an extremely long and reliable service life.
LED vs halogen beacons - which technology is right for me?
There is no catch-all answer to this question. Even in identical areas of application there is no uniform response. The selection can, however, be narrowed with the assistance of certain criteria. To find the right beacon for your application you should consider the following questions:
- How often or intensively will the beacon be used?
- How will the beacon we switched on and off?
- Is initial cost or whole-of-life cost more important?
The decisive factor here is considering where the beacon will be used and how demanding the area of application is.
If you plan on using the beacon frequently, the advantages of an LED beacon are clear. These units require no maintenance and have a longer life span than halogen beacons. There is no globe to replace and no moving parts.
A hard-wired beacon that is switchable from inside the cabin is probably preferable to a magnetic battery or 12-volt auxiliary outlet (cigarette lighter) powered beacon in frequent use applications Not only are you able to switch the beacon on/off from inside the cabin, it is also more secure from theft or accidental loss.
Like many things in life, quality is often worth the asking price. If you compare the cost of a halogen beacon against an LED beacon it’s obvious the latter is more expensive. Due to their complex (read: superior) technology and higher design costs, LED beacons are considerably more expensive. But their advantages are obvious. LED beacons last longer, require no service, have no globes to replace, and offer superior vibration, dust, water, and heat resistance.
Who needs a flashing beacon or strobe?
As we outlined earlier, flashing beacons or strobes are used by a wide range or professionals across a variety of fields. Specific colours relate to specific services. But unless you’re a registered member of the emergency services, an amber-coloured flashing beacons or strobe is the only type you may fit to your vehicle or plant.
In any instance where a flashing beacon or strobe is fitted, it is important to remember that you as the vehicle operator maintain the responsibility for the safety of other road users, the security of your load, or your conduct as a professional driver. Again, the use of an amber beacon or strobe does not give any priority over other traffic.
An amber flashing beacon or strobe is a warning sign. It can be used as a stationary warning or on moving vehicles. Its use in only permissible to warn of work in progress or where an accident has occurred. It may also indicate an unusually slow-moving vehicle, or in support of an unusually wide or long load.
As a general warning light, an amber flashing beacon or strobe may be used by:
- Council rangers or work crews
- Security guards and patrols
- Building and road construction crews
- Mining and mining support vehicles
- Escort and pilot vehicles
- Unusually heavy, long, or wide vehicles
- Tow trucks and heavy haulage vehicles
- Municipal service and utility vehicles
- Agricultural machinery and plant
- School buses and special needs vehicles
- Snow ploughs and other alpine service plant
- Any stationary broken-down or accident-damaged vehicle posing a hazard
What is the best location on a vehicle to fit a flashing beacon or strobe?
A flashing beacon or strobe must be fitted is where it can be viewed from 360 degrees at a radius of 25 metres. If this is not possible, more than one flashing beacon or strobe must be fitted. The light source must also be able to provide the same light continually while in use and must not dim or fade after extended operation (again, this is where the quality of the unit is important).
Be mindful that the directions provided here are general is nature. Each State and Territory in Australia has its own guidelines for the fitment and operation of flashing beacons and strobes. These must be considered when fitting a warning light to your vehicle.
Be mindful that in some instances flashing beacons or strobes must be accompanied by red and white safety markings (complying with DIN 30 710 standard and including waste collection and road maintenance vehicles), and that these too vary from state to state.
In our next blog, we’ll discuss the legal uses for different colour warning lights in Australia, electrical and magnetic interference, and the difference between SAE and ECE regulations.
Useful links relating to the use of flashing beacons and strobes in your State or Territory:
Australian Capital Territory https://www.legislation.act.gov.au/sl/2017-43/current/pdf/2017-43.pdf
South Australia https://www.sa.gov.au/topics/driving-and-transport/vehicles/vehicle-standards-and-modifications/lighting-and-instrumentation#:~:text=Yellow%2Famber%20lights%20are%20permitted,hazardous%20situations%20and%20emergency%20vehicles.