/ Motoring

Are both your car headlights working?

It’s still dark and dull outside, and so driving conditions aren’t all that great. Being visible on the road is not just important, it’s a legal requirement. So are both of your car headlights working?

On 27 January we reported that, according to government figures, nearly half of MOT failures last year would have been avoidable had the vehicle owner carried out a few basic visual checks in advance. And of those checks, simple lighting faults accounted for one in five of these cases.

While headlight failures may seem like just a minor inconvenience for some, it’s an irritation of mine. And based on the evidence I’ve seen while driving lately, it’s a problem that seems to be frequently slipping through the net. So I think it’s time to shine a light on the issue.

Under the spotlight

Now, you’d probably notice if both your car headlights were out, especially if you drive at night. But only losing one headlight might pass you by. Well-lit streets can hide the effect from the driver. Some may even be aware, but don’t see the issue as serious enough to deal with it straight away.

But vehicles with only one working light will appear to be considerably smaller than they actually are when viewed head-on and in mirrors by other drivers – you can end up believing that you have a motorbike in your vicinity, when in fact it’s a full-sized car or van.

In some cases the one working light will itself be obscured, leading the driver to assume there are no other vehicles around them at all, which could have serious consequences when it comes to turning, braking and changing lanes.

Not to mention the issues that could arise from any unfortunate collisions. If a headlight being out was the cause of the accident, how could you prove that the faulty headlight was broken before impact?

The fact is that driving without working headlights is an MOT failure, and it’s a failure for a reason – when visibility is poor it’s fundamentally dangerous for other drivers as well as pedestrians.

Here’s a bright idea

Now changing a car bulb can be an easy task on some car models, and a little trickier for others. A replacement bulb will usually cost you less than £5, and you may have to pay a further £5 to £10 if you require someone to fit it for you. But, all in all, I think it’s a pretty fair price to pay, that far outweighs the risk of not being seen on the road.

The number of vehicles I’ve spotted lately with partially or fully blown headlights on one side has been quite alarming, and I find it hard to believe that this problem could be localised (south London, for those wondering).

So, have you checked your headlights recently? And, have you, like me, noticed an increase in cars with their headlights out? Why do you think this is?


No doubt in the light (!) of this Conversation I have been looking at day-running lights while out and about on foot in the last few days. There have been many comments on the rather silly-looking chains of LED’s that are now adorning many new cars and drawing attention to their ugly front-end design. The best looking seem to be on BMW’s where they are integrated with the headlight module and appear as a concentric circle, not dazzling, and looking like the good engineering they should be. Time for other manufacturers to drop the pretentious and glaring string-of-fairy-lights effect and make lights that perform well, have easy-to-replace bulbs, and project the right amount of light in the most appropriate direction according to the prevailing conditions.

I am accustomed to new cars looking unfamiliar but cannot recall ever seeing so many ugly new cars. Hopefully DRLs will become less silly when the novelty wears off.

We now have mood lighting appearing in some cars. At present it’s confined to interior lights but I’m sure the manufacturers will be keen for us all to appreciate how clever they are if they can get away with pretty coloured exterior lighting.

The car remains an important status symbol – well, at least the manufacturers think it should which is why they are constantly trying to tweak the styling and glamourise the shape in the hope of appealing to a particular market segment. The advertising seems to be directed mainly at 20-30 year olds [the PCP purchase arrangements help in this respect] even though this group is usually more concerned about getting a roof over their head and raising a family. By the law of averages, most drivers are in an older vehicle, usually second- or third-hand; they must regard the new models which will be in their price bracket in three-four years’ time with a degree of apprehension if they want something practical, manageable and maintainable.

Nowadays you are no-one if you don’t have a quality or executive car with automatic adjustment of seats and other ego-massaging features. Perhaps it would be more useful to issue a reminder to look check the lights etc. The driver could be rewarded with an nice tune once they had complied.

I like that. Traffic signals, before they went LED, used to have a second lower wattage bulb that activated if the primary lamp failed – I am surprised this hasn’t been introduced in cars, not for the driver’s convenience but to ensure that two lights are always showing to oncoming vehicles.

I haven’t tried auto-adjusting seats; do they have a personal memory with pre-sets for the wife, the M-i-L, and other regular passengers? What I would appreciate in all cars is auto-adjusting head-rests in the rear seats as they always seem difficult to get right and some car owners don’t like people playing with them so they keep them at the lowest possible level which apart from being uncomfortable is illegal if the back of the head does not align with it.

DRL’s aren’t adorning ‘many’ new cars. They’re adorning ‘all’ new cars. As of February 2011 it has been mandatory for all new vehicles to have DRLs in order to pass type approval.

I appreciate that Will. I was specifically referring to the ribbons of LED lights that have been designed into many new cars as their compliance with the regulations. Other cars, and I particularly mentioned BMW’s, have much more sensible DRL’s.

vehicles are now designed that you have to take them to a garage/mechanic so the garage also makes money out of you -another rip off! Of for the good old days (retired mechanic)

Michael says:
17 March 2016

Around South Yorkshire, I find there is a direct correlation between vehicles with defective lights and drivers intent of showing the rest of us how good they are at ignoring traffic laws and etiquette in general.

I haven’t had to change a bulb on my own car for a few years but I have on my wife’s Fiesta and that requires the removal of the headlamp unit; not something you want to do on the side of the road.

I used to fit bulbs for Halfords. Firstly I’d like to say that Halogen technology – which is more than 95% of all vehicle bulbs you see on the road today, recognisable by the distinctive yellow-hue glow – are awful. They’re a budget technology with terrible reliability. To make matters worse, if the person installing them touches bare skin to the glass, oil contamination can cause premature failure – it reacts with the gas inside the bulb in a certain way.

Secondly, yes, changing bulbs is a horrible pain on many cars. Whilst I’ve often joked that manufacturers do this to try and force you to go a garage, the simple truth is modern cars are all about cramming as much technology as possible into as much empty space as possible. I’ve never had to take the battery out to change the passenger bulb before, but I have on various occasions – some models of Ford Focus, etc – had to unscrew the headlight cluster and bits of trim panel, and even then I’ve had to contort my hand to reach the bulb.

Halogen bulbs aren’t just unreliable; they’re inadequate. Light spread is poor. At the very least, HiD (Xenon) bulbs are way better. Sure, they’re ten times more expensive, but they have far higher reliability, far higher performance, and produce a crisp white light that is much better at highlighting potholes. LED bulbs are even better than that, albeit super expensive at the moment. LED bulbs are the ultimate future of headlights because they can dim in localized areas around the car in front, oncoming cars or pedestrians, but remain fully lit elsewhere, allowing you to leave them on full beam without blinding other road users.

Since the EU like to meddle in everything, surely the answer to the labour cost of replacement is to get them to mandate that all required bulbs (i.e. those required by law) can be changed at the roadside without the use of tools. A time limit of say 5 minutes for changing any bulb would ensure that manufacturers designed the vehicle accordingly. We could then adopt the old French system of making all drivers carry a spare of each bulb. How Renault could design a car where you have to remove the front wing to replace a headlamp bulb is beyond me.
In 1977 I had a new Vauxhall Cavalier & was very pleased to find that all bulbs at the rear were fitted in a tray that could be easily removed by wing nuts. About 2 minutes was all it took to change any of the bulbs. It wasn’t difficult to design the car that way then & shouldn’t be now.

The lights on my wife’s car are checked every week as it only goes out twice on regular basis.
My car is checked every time I use it due to a large window behind me and my neighbours window in front of me, also my grandchildren have a thing about checking my lights after they witnessed me changing a rear bulb and I explained why it had to be replaced and they don’t want the police man to shout at me.
I am however fed up seeing cars with only 1 stop/brake light or a side light and headlamp out on the same side of the vehicle.
I believe these people should be prosecuted for failing to maintain a road vehicle as 2 or more bulbs do not usually fail at the same time.
Owners have a legal requirement to check ALL the lights on their vehicle before use and you may not use a defective vehicle on the public highway. Yet you will all b***h like hell if you was booked for it.
I have changed failed bulbs on motorway services before now especially if I was to be away for the week as a mobile crane engineer, covering over 150,000 mile a year for over 25 years.
Regards front and rear fog lamps, the clue is in the word **FOG**.
Front FOG lamps may only be used in FOG or Falling Snow.
Rear FOG lamps may only be used in FOG with the visibility of less than 100 metres, NOT RAIN

Last week I found myself behind a car with a working number plate light but no tail lights. We were approaching traffic lights so I pulled into the other lane, wound down the window and shouted to alert him to the problem. He thanked me but was still driving without lights when I turned off a mile further on.

Thanks George. A simple post like this provides encouragement because we have no idea of which topics are being pursued.

Wavechange if there was two of you in the car (you did post “we”) your passenger could have taken his number and you could have reported him to the police who in turn, could have traced the offender through the DVLA. Problems arise when you are the sole occupant and like me, your short term memory may not be as good as it used to be 🙂

Now that vehicles with Daylight Running Lamps are more common, I notice many with only one illuminated. This is strange, since most are LED’s which supposedly last a lifetime. Is this because they are so bright, perhaps overloading them? In any case, no-one seems to be enforcing the requirement for both to be lit all the time.

I have noticed that as well. I thought it was possibly because the surrounding brightness of the sunshine was making one of the lights imperceptible, or because the angle of my observation was good for one side of the vehicle but not so good for the other – I don’t know whether the LED day running lights are aligned in any way. Drivers have a responsibility to check their lights but, as this Conversation has shown, many don’t and of those who do a proportion do not rectify a fault. For many cars with day running lights a failure would be within the warranty period.

Beryl – Sorry, my comment was ambiguous. I was alone and ‘we’ referred to the drivers.

I have frequently drivers if they have a faulty light or an under-inflated tyre when I have followed them into a supermarket or other car park. If we were invited to report cars with faulty lights I would be happy to oblige, but it’s not something I have ever reported to the police. I have reported car numbers when I have witnessed incidents such as cars shunting others when parking. Many years ago I approached a driver who was putting a note on the windscreen after I witnessed him hit a neighbour’s Morris Minor in icy conditions. It turned out that the car had already been hit and another driver had left a note. I wonder how the insurance companies sorted out that.

Perhaps a website could be set up to allow us to report problems, location and time/date.

I wonder if the automatic number plate recognition system could also identify cars with faulty lights so the process is automated in the same way as speed cameras, so that we are not reliant on anyone reporting faulty lights.

I must say the “big brother” approach does not appeal to me. It can lead to vindictive reporting or, at least, a holier than thou approach. When someone will not know they have a faulty light it is surely sensible to try to inform them rather than report them to the police (who have better things to do given their austerity budgets, particularly in investigating things that happened 30 years ago. And I thought “New Tricks” was just fiction, with a small cast). Particularly when you cannot easily replace many lights without a trip to the garage.

However, helping when there has been a “bump” is something I support. Whilst I think we are (all) too precious about the slightest mark on our beloved cars – why not have rubber panels like some vans; ah, it’s style isn’t it – the villain who really damages your vehicle and disappears without trace needs dealing with. Particularly those who ensure they are seen leaving a note on the windscreen – with a false address or phone number.

There is also the possibility that the lamp had failed very recently. I once checked my lights in the MOT waiting area and when tested ten minutes later, the number plate light was not working. 🙁 The tester showed me the problem, and the lamp worked, but my next journey was to the dealer to buy a new lampholder.

Unfortunately a bump can cause hidden damage even if it is invisible. I do agree about rubber strips, preferable at a standard height. Unfortunately they don’t sell cars.

Hopefully Which? is looking at the problem of cars where an obligatory lamp cannot be changed without tools at the roadside. It is amazing that the motor industry has not tackled this irresponsible behaviour long ago.

Alan says:
22 March 2019

I check my rear lights when I park up out side any shop.(after dark) The lights can be seen in the reflection in the shop windows. One vehicle needs a payment of at least £105 to change a side light bulb. How crazy is THAT?.

When I buy a car I check that I have spare bulbs for the exterior lights so that they can be replaced if needed. I recently realised that my stock did not include a spare for the daytime running lights and not that the car is approaching seven years old they might fail at any time. The local Halfords store stocks the bulbs (H5 715) at £22.40 each. I’m not sure what is special about them but hope it means that they last at least ten years because I won’t be buying spares if they are not needed.