A bootleggers pass refers to a driving maneuver where one vehicle passes another vehicle at an intersection when the passing vehicle has a red light or stop sign. The term originated during the Prohibition era in the United States when bootleggers transporting illegal liquor would use this technique to evade police vehicles trying to pull them over.
Origin of the Term Bootleggers Pass
The bootleggers pass driving maneuver got its name from bootleggers transporting prohibited liquor during the Prohibition era from 1920 to 1933. Bootlegging refers to the illegal production and distribution of liquor during that time period when the manufacturing, transportation, and sale of alcohol was outlawed under the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Bootleggers often modified their vehicles with more powerful engines and shock absorbers to handle the weight of transporting heavy loads of bottled liquor. They would also make other alterations to increase speed and maneuverability to be able to evade law enforcement seeking to arrest them and seize their contraband cargo.
A common bootlegger tactic was to rush through intersections against traffic signals and stop signs to make their getaway from pursuing police vehicles. This dangerous and illegal driving technique became known as a “bootleggers pass” in reference to those outrunning the law with their illicit liquor cargo.
How the Bootleggers Pass Driving Maneuver Works
The bootleggers pass is executed when a vehicle approaches an intersection and instead of stopping for a red light or stop sign, the driver continues through the intersection without braking or slowing down. This is highly dangerous and illegal since the passing vehicle is violating traffic rules and could collide with other cars or pedestrians in the intersection.
Typically the maneuver is done when a driver perceives there are no police around to avoid and get around obeying the traffic signals or stop signs. It enables the driver to continue unimpeded rather than having to brake for the light and intersection, which could allow pursuing police vehicles to catch up.
The origins of bootleggers blowing through intersections to evade law enforcement during Prohibition has translated into a term used for any situation where a driver illegally passes other stopped vehicles at an intersection to get ahead of traffic.
Technique Used by Bootleggers
There were a few techniques bootleggers would employ to safely (relative to the danger of the maneuver) blow through intersections:
- Approaching the intersection at high speed to reduce the time crossing the intersection against the light, thereby reducing chance of collision
- Briefly flashing high beams before entering the intersection to alert other drivers and pedestrians
- Quickly looking left and right without stopping to check for oncoming cross traffic
- Entering the intersection while honking the horn to warn other cars and pedestrians
- Driving in the middle of the road through the intersection to avoid vehicles stopped at the light
In addition to these techniques, bootleggers often outfitted their car engines for more power and speed so they could quickly accelerate through intersections before crossing traffic entered.
Dangers and Risks
While termed a “pass,” the bootleggers pass is an extremely dangerous, reckless, and illegal driving maneuver. Blowing through a red light or stop sign at speed puts the offending driver and innocent crossing motorists and pedestrians at great risk of accident, injury, and death. The dangers include:
- Potential high-speed collision with vehicles legally entering the intersection with the green light
- Striking pedestrians legally crossing the intersection
- Causing other drivers to swerve or stop suddenly increasing chain reaction collisions
- Inability to see other vehicles, cyclists, or pedestrians due to speed
In addition to the immediate safety hazards, drivers performing bootleggers passes can cause lengthy traffic delays from traffic accidents. The reckless driving behavior also endangers other drivers following the law who are delayed when the offender violates traffic signals.
The bootleggers pass driving maneuver is illegal in all 50 U.S. states. Blowing through a red light or stop sign, even if no accident occurs, violates state traffic laws and can result in monetary fines and license points for drivers. Depending on the jurisdiction, specific charges can include:
- Running a red light
- Running a stop sign
- Reckless driving
- Driving to endanger
If an accident occurs from a bootleggers pass, the driver performing the maneuver can face additional charges such as reckless endangerment, vehicular assault, or vehicular manslaughter if injuries or deaths result. Law enforcement today can also access intersection cameras and electronic records to identify offenders even if police do not directly witness the violation at the time it occurs.
While originated by bootleggers evading police during Prohibition, the bootleggers pass term transitioned into general usage for anyone illegally running intersections. The hazardous maneuver persists today, particularly in cities and areas with high traffic congestion and frequent traffic lights.
Some reasons drivers continue to make bootleggers passes today include:
- Impatience and frustration at waiting for traffic lights
- Running late and attempting to save time
- Belief they can do it safely due to light traffic
- Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Thrill seeking and pushing boundaries
The ongoing temptation to execute bootlegger passes highlights the need for traffic enforcement and intersection cameras to catch violators and discourage others from attempting the dangerous move.
Famous Examples in Pop Culture
The bootleggers pass has worked its way into American pop culture over the years:
- Smokey and the Bandit – In the iconic 1977 film, Bo “Bandit” Darville, played by Burt Reynolds, drives a Pontiac Trans Am and makes numerous bootleggers passes evading Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) in high speed chases transporting illegal Coors beer cross country.
- The Dukes of Hazzard – On the 1980s television series set in a fictional Georgia county, cousins Bo and Luke Duke frequently make use of bootleggers passes in their 1969 Dodge Charger stock car, The General Lee, eluding county commissioner Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane.
- Need for Speed video games – Illegal street racing Need for Speed video games dating back to 1994 have included driving through red lights and stop signs to evade virtual police pursuits.
These and other media representations romanticize the real dangers of bootleggers passes and glorify violating traffic laws meant to keep all drivers and pedestrians safe.
While an iconic image from American criminal history during Prohibition, the bootleggers pass remains an illegal and reckless driving maneuver today. Blowing through red lights and stop signs risks accidents and injuries or death to the offending driver, public motorists following the law, and pedestrians. Improved traffic enforcement and education is needed to curb the ongoing temptation some drivers feel to execute this hazardous traffic violation.