Dear Urban Legends:
I heard this one in 1996 when I was living up in Seattle. The teller seemed to think it was happening at that time in and around the Pugetopolis, but that seemed unlikely to me. However, if the story were told in the context of, say, Los Angeles (or even New York, Chicago, Detroit, etc.) it would actually seem sort of plausible. Anyway, here goes:
The story is that a new gang initiation ritual has become prevalent in our city. The hoodlums pile in a car, at night, and drive the highways and byways with their lights off. The first person who 'flashes' them with their lights (in the time-honored gesture of 'hey, idiot, your lights are off!') becomes their prey. The gangbangers then pursue the samaritan and the initiate must gun him or her down without mercy.
Sounds like a myth, right? But do you suppose there is a kernel of truth to the rumor; that perhaps somewhere at sometime some thugs did, in fact, use this modus operandi?
Apart from one or two copycat incidents which may have been inspired by this urban legend (not the other way around), I don't think so. This story has run rampant in virtually every major U.S. city since the early 1990s, sparking public panics and police investigations, but no one has ever documented an actual "gang initiation" incident matching this description in all that time.
It is believed that one of the earliest outbreaks of the rumor (in 1993) may have been inspired by a real-life incident that occurred one year before -- the shooting of Stockton, California school secretary Kelly Freed, who was a passenger in an automobile whose driver gestured at a car full of teenagers to inform them that their headlights were off. Mistaking the hand signal as an insult, one of the teens fired a gun at the car Freed was riding in, killing her. Police determined that none of the youths were gang members, nor was the incident connected with an "initiation rite."
On the Internet
Email versions of what has come to be known as the "Lights Out" legend began appearing in October 1998, perhaps inspired by the release of the popular horror film "Urban Legend," in which the apocryphal gang-initiation tale figured prominently. The online alerts resulted in a fresh flurry of panicked inquiries to police departments in cities and towns throughout the U.S., many of which were already aware of the rumor by then but lacked the information to either substantiate or disprove it.
In November of that year, John Moore, senior research associate at the National Youth Gang Center based in Tallahassee, stated that to the best of his knowledge the "Lights Out" legend is completely false: "I know of no incident in the country where this type of thing occurred," he told a reporter for the Washington Post. "This is one of the wonders of the Internet, that you can take something that has no basis in fact and make people believe it."
Nevertheless, probably because they fear the possibility of copycat outbreaks, some law enforcement agencies still recommend that motorists play it safe and refrain from flashing their headlights when driving in areas where gang activities are known to occur.
Email text contributed by Trevor M., Nov. 25, 1998:
Subject: FW: Warning
THIS IS NOT A JOKE
PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD.
The police officer that works with the DARE program at an elementary school passed this warning on.... If you're ever driving after dark and see an on-coming car with no headlights turned on, DO NOT flash your lights at them! This is a common gang member "initiation game" that goes like this: the new gang member under initiation drives along with no headlights and the first car to flash their headlights at him is now his "target". He is now required to turn around and chase that car and shoot at or into the car in order to complete his initiation requirements. Make sure you share this info with all the drivers in your family!! Stay safe!!
Email text contributed by Ernest W., July 3, 2000:
Subject: A Warning
****** STATE POLICE WARNING TO NIGHT DRIVERS
THE FOLLOWING BULLETIN WAS PUBLISHED BY THE BETHLEHEM,PA. STATE POLICE
Please be advised if you are driving after dark and you see a car without headlights on DO NOT FLASH YOUR LIGHTS.... BLOW YOUR HORN... DO NOT SIGNAL THE CAR IN ANY WAY!!!
This is a new GANG MEMBER initiation called "GAME" going on in the street and it works like this: The new member being initiated drives along with their headlights off until someone notices and flashes their at him. The car that signals to the gang member is now the "TARGET" of the game. The gang member is required to chase the car that signaled and SHOOT at, or into the car in order to complete initiation requirements.
Police ask you to share this information with your family, friends and anyone else you come into contact with. This bulletin originally came from the 3rd district of Cleveland, Ohio Police Department. We understand it is beginning to happen in the Pittsburgh, PA area also and the warning is because this could escalate into any other geographic areas.
THIS IS NOTA JOKE IT REALLY IS HAPPENING JUST CHECK WITH LOCAL STATE POLICE!!!!!
PLEASE SHARE THIS WITH YOUR FAMILIES AND FRIENDS