Tony Escobar calls his mini-pickup truck "Misty Blue." It has a midnight-blue paint job and chromed wheels and it rides low to the ground.
There is a strip of red and yellow lights that runs along the bottom of the truck's rear window. Every time Escobar hits the brakes, the lights blink and flash like dance-floor lights. Escobar's friend bought the contraption for $20 at a swap meet.
"I think it's cool," Escobar said. "People like it and when I see somebody else with one, I stare at it."
More and More Around
Such colorful rear-window displays are becoming more and more visible on Los Angeles highways. The trend started in late 1985, when the federal government made it mandatory for new cars to have a high-mounted, third brake light. The custom lights are merely variations of the central red lamp that is now standard on all new cars.
There are models that flash in blinking dots from left to right or vice versa or in both directions. Some spell out names and messages. Others have colored lights that swirl around the license plate.
But what people don't know about these brake lights, police say, is that they are illegal. And authorities worry that the custom lights have become widely popular without the public realizing they are unsafe.
"The federal standard says it can't blink, can't flash, can't spell out words," said Kent Milton, a California Highway Patrol spokesman. "By definition, a brake light is a steady red-burning light. It gives a message to 'stop.' These other lights can be confusing. It's not clear what message they are transmitting."
Highway patrol officers in Los Angeles say they have begun to write tickets for such brake lights on a daily basis. Escobar, a 24-year-old North Hollywood cabinet installer, has been pulled over twice in the last four months.
"The twice I got stopped, I talked them out of a ticket," he said. "They just told me to take it out."
Escobar has yet to remove the lights.
"I want to get another one and put it in the front window," he said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that once all cars on the road are equipped with a third brake light, there will be 900,000 fewer rear-end accidents and 40,000 fewer injuries each year.
Confusing and Distracting
But versions of the safety light that feature blinking dots and flashing messages are not only confusing but also distracting, authorities say. Modified brake lights may also reflect off the inside of the rear window and impair the driver's vision in the rear-view mirror.
As of now, neither the highway patrol nor the Los Angeles Police Department has received any reports of accidents resulting from such lights.
Los Angeles traffic police say they are not writing tickets for the lights and will not unless such accidents begin occurring. CHP officers are writing fix-it tickets for small amounts, Officer Diane Lowery said.
"It seems like there have been more and more of them lately," Lowery said. "I see them all the time driving to work."
Cassius Green was cited last month for having illegal lights on his 1987 Ford van. Green said he will fight the ticket in court.
"I don't see what's illegal about them," said Green, who owns a Hollywood dry-cleaning store. "It's basically a decoration thing."
Probably the most popular of the modified third brake lights is the Night Rider. It features a thin bar of red lights that blink in various patterns.
Pep Boys has sold 18,000 Night Riders in the last six months alone, said John Deagon, an associate buyer for the chain store. This month, the store is having a sale on the $15 brake lights.
At a Pep Boys in East Los Angeles, the Night Rider and another device, the Night Lighter, with lights that spin around the license plate, are displayed beneath a sign that reads "Buckle Up and Light Up!" At a Pep Boys on Hollywood Boulevard, there is a hand-printed sign above the Night Rider display: "For Off Road Use Only." The product's packaging bears a similar disclaimer.
"Obviously they've been very popular. They're selling like hot cakes," Deagon said. "It indicates on the package that it is for off-road use only. As long as the disclaimer is displayed on the packaging, then we're able to sell the item. We were told this by the CHP themselves."
While custom brake lights have been available for a number of years, manufacturers, store owners and police say they have become more popular as a result of the September, 1985 federal regulation.
"The third brake light increased consumer awareness and spurred a certain amount of enthusiasm," said a company official with Rally Accessories Inc. in Miami, Fla., which manufactures the Night Rider. As for the illegal use of his company's product, the official said, "Some individuals will go out and use it as they will. That is something we cannot control."
Sonrise Motoring Accessories in Glassell Park offers several models of rear-window brake lights, ranging from the Night Rider to a $239 device that flashes pre-programmed messages.