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All across the country, high school seniors are ordering a cap and gown for their upcoming graduation. In some towns, you can tell these soon-to-be-grads because they hang their graduation tassel from their car‘s rearview mirror. Many states prohibit this, as it obstructs your vision out of the windshield. Other states allow police officers to give you a ticket for such an obstruction only once they have pulled you over for another offense.

Can you hang things from your rearview mirror?

The majority of states have laws against installing or carrying anything in a car that obstructs the driver’s ability to see. And this makes sense because, you know, we use our eyes to drive. Some states specify just how “obstructed” your view must be to drive. Others don’t allow any obstructions whatsoever.

An air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror of a car, sunset visible in the background.
Rearview mirror | A.L. via Unsplash

My colleague Joe Santos reported on when exactly it is illegal to hang an air freshener from your rearview mirror. He quoted a Colorado dealership laying out why something hanging from your rearview mirror is not always illegal:

“‘No vehicle shall be operated upon any highway unless the driver’s vision through any required glass equipment is normal and unobstructed.’ An air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror is not an automatic violation of subsection (4). The air freshener must actually obstruct the driver’s vision to be a violation.” – Scott’s Fort Collins Auto.

While Colorado’s laws are specific, other states have more general laws. Here’s what California says:

“A person shall not drive a car with any object or material placed, affixed, or installed on the vehicle which obstructs or reduces the driver’s clear view through the windshield or side windows.”

Can you truly get pulled over for a graduation tassel hanging from your rearview mirror?

The answer depends on where you live. Some states that prohibit anything obstructing the driver’s view allow police officers to pull you over for this offense. In other states, it’s not a “primary” offense, so the police must first pull you over for something else.

A woman drives a car with a graduation tassel hanging from its rearview mirror.
Graduation tassel | Rembrandt Grad

According to the New York Times, some states have changed their laws around objects obstructing a driver’s view as part of recent policing reforms. Here’s what the Times says about these laws:

“They are part of a suite of low-level offenses, such as tinted windows or broken taillights, that civil rights advocates complain have become common pretexts for traffic stops that too often selectively target people of color.”

Groups such as the ACLU argue that when it comes to these low-level offenses, “The danger that police traffic stops pose greatly outweighs any benefit.”

This may be one of the reasons that states such as Maryland have downgraded obstructed windshields from a “primary” offense. In practice, this means you can still get ticketed after a police officer pulls you over for something else.

Why do people hang their graduation tassel from their rearview mirror?

Many grads choose to display their achievements, status, and membership in the graduating class by hanging their tassel on the rearview mirror of their car. Some folks even leave it there all summer.

If you’re graduating this spring, you should be proud of your achievement. How you display this achievement is your choice. But when you consider all aspects of this choice, you’ll see it is not a simple one. And perhaps that’s a good thing, because its the first of many choices you’ll face after school that have no single right answer.

Next, find out if its legal to cruise along in the left lane of the highway without passing.