Blue Line

In defence of the ‘Gumball’

November 28, 2014  By Mark Reesor

The Michigan State Police (MSP) patrol car is perhaps one of the most recognizable in the United States, with its single red “bubble” or “gumball” overhead light, blue paint and “stop” placard.

We’re consistently being asked one question: Why does the MSP have a single red overhead light on its cars? As the only state police department in the country to use this design, the light is unmistakably identifiable to Michigan residents and other law enforcement agencies.

Many people often assume it is used today solely as tradition but there’s more to the story. The MSP has had marked patrol cars since 1929. Originally, the only emergency lights were red spotlights mounted on the right-front fender with the word “stop” on the glass. The department began using overhead convex-shaped light fixtures with front and rear red bulbs in the 1940s. The light as we know it today was first installed on patrol cars in 1956.

While many are accustomed to this look, the benefits go beyond tradition. The single overhead light has been proven to enhance acceleration and performance.

The nationally recognized Police Vehicle Evaluation, conducted by the MSP Precision Driving Unit, has found vehicles with a full overhead light bar accelerate slower than vehicles with a single overhead light.

Additionally, the reduced forward-facing surface area of the single light provides greater fuel savings when compared to the larger surface area of a light bar. In the past couple of years, the MSP’s “bubble” overhead light began to undergo a conversion to Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) to improve energy efficiency.

Working with Whelen Engineering, a Brighton-based firm, a prototype was developed. After nearly four years of research, development and testing, Whelen and the Precision Driving Unit produced a light kit that fits in the existing overhead light shell. The new LED overhead light produces an intense, wide-angle red light in all directions that only requires three amps to operate.

Each kit uses 12 light heads, nine bulbs per head, for a total of 108 lights in each car – far more than most standard light bars. The bulbs have a 100,000-hours-of-use rating and a five-year warranty from date of service. To reduce installation costs, current MSP patrol cars are fitted with the new LED overhead light kits when there is a light failure.

Since the lights are maintenance free and eliminate the need for heavy-duty wiring and special switches, the MSP estimates this will ultimately result in a cost-savings. This single red beacon isn’t the only lighting on the car. The MSP has had rear deck lights on patrol cars for many years. They were originally red, but are presently a combination of both red and blue.

The cars also have flashing front-grill “wig-wag” red and blue lights and “wig-wag” headlights when the overhead “bubble” light is activated.


Reprinted from Jan 11, 2012, .

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