/ 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?


Cyclists deserve a mention here. The brightness of bike lights has grown enormously with LED technology.
I am increasingly dazzled driving at night around our country lanes by cyclists, seemingly unaware that their high-tech headlights (and flashing rear lights, come to that) actually momentarily blind motorists now.
It is well past the point where they should be required to dip them, just like motorists must.
They need reminding that it is actually safer for them if we can see where we are going!

I agree, Martin. Fortunately these powerful bike lights are still in the minority but it’s a growing problem. A car dipped headlight is designed to cut off the light above a certain height so that it is not a nuisance for other road users but as far as I am aware the high intensity bike lights are more like main beam lights on a car. I find the high intensity flashing rear lights a bigger problem.

I suppose the intense rear lights on bicycles are saying “stay further back”, but at some point you have to get close and overtake.

When I cycled regularly I fitted a rear lamp with the biggest circumference red lens I could find but the bulb was the standard brightness, in the belief that being visible was more important than shining a bright light. The opposite now seems to prevail with a tiny light source at intense brightness – not really an aid to being seen in the dark, and worse if it flashes too.

martin, even worse when cyclists have bright LED lights on their helmets.

I’ve had more than once a ‘One Light Wonder’ coming towards me and giving parked cars a wide berth and appearing to look like a motorcycle but with 4 feet on car appear out of the blinding nearside headlight! It should an immediate offence for driving on one headlight. Modern cars warn of a light out and I carry spare bulbs with is a legal requirement on the continent. In an emergency at lease put fog lights on. Although not legal if not poor visibility but better than a head on. At least be seen.
While I’m having a rant driving on sidelights is illegal as is front/rear fog lights when visibility is over 100yds (its like a ‘I once drove in the fog’ boast) and refusing to switch on lights until its absolutely pitch dark is shear stupidity.

I suppose if speed camera revenue decreases we could raise extra revenue by fining on the spot anyone with a defective light. The statutory penalty is, I believe, £50. Judging by the comments in this convo if this were enforced we should soon clear the national debt.

I was discussing this possibility with a friend several weeks ago. There are numerous Truvelo speed cameras on an A-road that we both use frequently. Assuming that they are linked to a central computer, this could identify cars that have a faulty light and it has not been fixed a week later. What I had not realised is that the cameras contain photographic film (or so I was told) – so are hardly likely to be networked. 🙁

I understand that some or all of these cameras are to be replaced by average speed cameras, so there might be the possibility of collecting information about cars with faulty lights that have not been fixed promptly.

Big brother strikes again. We are the most heavily monitored country in the world, I have heard, with cctv cameras. I am sure that they do good in tracking problems in town say, and miscreants. But something about having all my actions monitored sends a shiver down my spine.

For many offences now there is no way to plead mitigating circumstances, unless you choose the expense of a court appearance and the threat of a much larger penalty if you fail.

Perhaps it is fair? But to be continually feeling that any false move you make that might be for quite innocent or explicable reasons – just like private parking penalties, unfair overdraft charges – might well result in a significant automated penalty is not a society I am comfortable with.

I was wondering whether the image definition of the VRM on a moving vehicle would be adequate during the night time except on roads with street lighting.

Malcolm – I brought this up because you had mentioned the possibility. However if we could avoid injuries and save lives, maybe monitoring is not a bad idea, and cars are monitored anyway to check that they are licensed. I would rather have my car monitored than having my purchases recorded by retailers.

John – As far as I am aware, speed cameras work fine in the dark.

Yes they probably do, and that is presumably why it became mandatory to fit reflectorised number plates so that any available light would aid recognition. Rear number plates still have to have illumination though – one more thing to check.

As well as faulty bulbs, number plate lamps can be affected by salt spray on hatchback cars, leading to poor connections. Pressing the button on my remote control tests them as well as the tail lights and headlights and indicators, but only when it is dark. Pity it does not test brake lights too.

I travel 40 miles each day to work and have noted of late the number of other vehicles with one headlight, so much so I have taken to counting how many vehicles have this defect. Last week I reached 19 vehicles on my journey. This got me thinking, firstly are our modern headlights much harder to change or are the bulbs of a poorer quality? I have also noted the modern practice of driving with just running lights on even in inclement weather. Do drivers not realise that they have no rear lights on when travelling in this mode?

Thought I would join in with my input.
We all agree that all car lights should be in good working order, front and rear. The amount of non compliance to this legality is on the rise. The amount of drivers in Dorset with both defective lighting front and back is astonishing.
The other day, a car had NO rear lights working at all, that includes the brake lights. When I flashed the driver with my lights he then pulled over. Then I drove along side, mentioned the light problem and all I got was verbal abuse. What is wrong with people these days?
The whole driving etiquette has declined in all aspects. There is definitely a lack of respect relating to the laws of the road and to other road users. This will also increase the accident ratio.
I must admit, I don’t have the answers except a stronger police presence on the roads, but with what?
The cut backs that they have had to endure means there is a lack of funds to monitor these problems, so what happens? The amount of accidents will increase.
The cycle debate is also a strong one. How many times do we get dazzled by there strong, non dipped front lights whether it be on the bike or head? I understand the need to been seen, but surely there must be a controlled limit on roads, off road is a different kettle of fish. The rear lights, can they cause fits/ or other issuies in a driver if they are on flashing mode? If so, surely that is something else that needs to be looked in.

With very few traffic police now due to cuts who is there to enforce the law. Its the same with mobile phones , seat belts and smoking in cars with children. It is all very irritating.

Yes police cuts and more boxes to tick and keep them in the office
I dont mean to question irritation or the definition of the word if use lightly but irritation is a well known problem on the roads
How can someone else smoking in another car or not wearing a seat belt be irritating…………..
Thats their problem………..I’ll wear my seat belt and I dont smoke………….
Dont let other people irritate you……It’s not easy but its easier than being irritated once you grasp the nettle as such

At some point one has to say to ones self if I want to fix the drivers I need to join the police and if I’m not in the police let the world go past because no odds how hot and flustered you get you nor I cant fix it………

There are much worse things happening right below our noses and we choose to ignore those
They are irritating only if we see them as others getting off with something and we begrudge them…………

I dislike being overtaken when I’m at or near 30 in a 30 zone or any lollipop speed sign zone for that matter by three cars in a row……..I might occasionally be doing 35 but this 50+mph overtake is endangering others much worse. I am very good at seeing lollipop limits and I do not know how many others who I see flying into the 30s at 60 and more get away with it……………….But it’s not my job……….

If I’m doing 70 on a motorway and someone goes past doing 80 maybe I dont feel irritated…………….They are little danger to me or others…………….
Phones are irritating because they’re use whilst driving causes danger to others and in particular me……………and mine………but dont become irritated………Irritation on its own can provoke actions that can cause more danger in turn…………

I once worked with someone who seen traffic jams as okay and gave him time to think……………He was a glass half full type of person…………..It prompted me,, to say the least………..One of life’s lessons………..I do my best now to look at traffic as time to reflect……………I doesnt alway work but it does work most of the time…………..What a good insight to something mostly looked upon as adverse…………..Just leave on time and all will be fine…………………I’d rather sit at the airport having been an hour being early as a day being late……….

I have done all the driving things I can do in life and at every corner of every course the one thing that gets puts forward is to stop yourself becoming irritated………….Take a breath,,,,,,,,Think?? It’s not worth it and everything will be fine…………….Slow down,,,,,,,,,let him in,,,,,,,,dont brake test the idiot behind,,,,,,he’ll go away in minutes,,,,,Wait for the 85 year old to turn in,,,,,,Some day God willing you might be in the same boat…..

Caution Caution Caution every step of the way………….I’ve seen and repaired many damaged vehicles……..The hurry,,bad attitude or the supposed advantage being sought that caused the damage will never save the time its takes to make the repairs so there are no gains no day no how……….It will over take you some day………..

I think a lot of the problems with defective lights are caused by people not doing regular weekly or monthly checks on lights. It was always drilled into me that basic checks on lights, battery, fluid levels and tyre pressures as well as visual inspection of tyres are essential and can save an awful lot of grief and time

Hi Grumpygit,,,,,,,,,,,,,,I like the name…………..Nothing wrong with that……….I love the grumpy old men and woman programs also.
My Plod would say that you need to check lights your before each and every trip but that’s kinda in the perfection department and meant to do away with any leeway one has
I check all mine against a wall near every time I drive by our gable after dark…………….Out does the rear lights and in does the front ones………Its really easy and doest take 10 seconds………There are 100s of walls we all go past near every eve
I ask my son when he last checked his wife’s Panda for oil and water and has asked………Is there not a light on the dash?????
My cousins son said he could not see,,,,his lights had got so bad,,,,what would he do?? His father and I went to have a look see to find two side lights only…….No headlights………..
No there is no answer to these people it seems……………………

If any of the cars on the road are like my Renault Clio there would always be a high percentage of cars with only one light working. My car which is 4 years old has blown a light bulb regularly for the last two and a half years. I have had at least 10 bulb changes in that time. I keep 3 spare in my glove compartment because they blow so regularly. My local garage used to change them for me, but now it has got such a joke, I have learnt to do it myself, even though it is really tricky and you need hands the size of a 6 year old. The bloke in the garage said he thinks it is because the light casing is now so much smaller than it used to be, and with the lights so much more powerful and emitting so much more heat, he thinks they over heat and when you go over any bumps they will be more prone to blowing. As I live in the countryside and the roads are made up of potholes, I really don’t stand a chance. So please give some slack for some of the poor people with only one headlight, they may well be in my predicament, as I was last week, having just changed the nearside on Tuesday, I find that by Friday the offside has blown. I am due a change of car soon and if for no other reason I can’t wait, as I can not wait to get rid of this problem………..I hope!

It is an increasingly annoying habit for people on the M4 (London to Reading) to suffer from what I call “Columbo lights”: either one headlight off, or very dim (as is the driver). Many then seem to think it is safer to turn on their fog lights proving they know very well they are driving with illegal lights, and now doubling their illegal behaviour. Sadly, it is not policed at all so I predict will just get worse.
My eyes are sensitive to bright lights so Xenon bulbs, high-beams and lights from high suspension cars (Ranger Rovers) actually hurt my eyes, so I either have to let them pass me or dip my mirror and then risk not seeing the one-eyed monsters behind.
The final act of utter stupidity is however the growing clan of Ninja cyclists, who think it is OK to cycle in the dark, dressed head to toe in black with a hood up and with no lights at all.

I’m surprised at how many cars now run around with what I call ‘one and a half headlamps’ and get away with it. In the 1970’s and 80’s I was stopped a couple of time by the police for this offense, what is going on here? Do the police not bother anymore or are they too busy hiding behind roadside bushes with a speed camera?

I agree it is very dangerous and is on the increase. In the past few months I have had 3 instances of bulbs failing during my journeys. It’s easy for me to check at home, because my village has less than 10 street lamps and my shared driveway is very dark (good for star/planet gazing). However when I get to a well lit town it’s impossible to be aware that one or more bulbs have stopped working. Last week I was very grateful to a cyclist (surprisingly as they are notoriously lax at using lamps and high viz jackets themselves) who let me know my headlight was not working – it was when I left home! Next day I went to my nearest Halfords to get it fixed. They do a very quick and reasonably priced service. Shame that over the years vehicle manufacturers have not incorporated a dashboard warning system to every vehicle, so there wouldn’t be any excuses for not realising.

Caroline Danks says:
21 February 2016

I also suspect that the cost of replacing some headlights is a deterrent: chatting to the owner of a Jaguar recently, he complained that it was costing £125 to replace a headlamp! Perhaps there should be a campaign to force car manufacturers to reduce the cost of such parts and to make their car designs more user friendly when it comes to maintenance, especially of headlamps…………………

LED brake lights are also a problem when inconsiderate drivers do not use their parking brake when stationary at traffic lights etc.Some of these lights are so bright they hurt the eyes.
There should be a limit on the light output of brake lights.
There is also a problem with drivers who insist on using fog lights when they are not needed and serve no function but to light up about 2 metres of road in front of them.

Michael Simonsen Jackson says:
21 February 2016

I believe headlight bulbs fail much quicker than they used to. I had Citroen’s for many years and bulb failure was very common.
I also wonder how manufacturers get away with putting those tiny little side-lights on so many cars which can be used instead of dipped headlights. Nissan seem to have these on most models, they are next to useless so I fail to understand why people use them.

Allan says:
21 February 2016

Why no mention in the story that it used to be possible to change a bulb at the side of the road. some cars you need to take the front bumper off or else the out the wheel arch liner. If Which went to do something useful, then a campaign for user-changeable bulbs would be really helpful.

For what it is worth I have just come back from a 50 mile round trip on moderately trafficked rural roads and a busy dual carriageway.
!0 cars had only one headlight working. No cars had rear light problems.
Headlights were a mixture of halogen, Xenon and LED and none caused me any dazzle – except one forgetful driver stopped to turn right in the middle of the road and had forgotten to go to dip beam; even this was not disabling.
All cars had headlights near the edge of the car, so marked their widths effectively.

Some people are more sensitive to glare generally than others. Scatter in the eye is a cause – a veil of light is superimposed on the scene, just like having a dirty windscreen and driving towards a low sun. Some, without realising, will have the beginnings of opacity in their lenses which has the same effect. So if you do find that driving at night is generally becoming more difficult because of glare it is well worth visiting your optician to check that your eyes have not begun to deteriorate in this way; it can be put right.

My eyesight is fine and I don’t need glasses for driving. I specifically asked my optician about cataracts and raised pressure in January and there is no problem. But when people don’t dip their lights, especially on country roads it’s unpleasant and I believe dangerous when the vehicle is fitted with high intensity headlights. I did not have a problem until high intensity headlights started appearing.

I am certainly not alone and when I’m a passenger, drivers complain about the same problem.

roger newbury says:
21 February 2016

My complaint is drivers who only use sidelights at day break and at dusk also on foggy days they can see you but you cann’t see them. I live in the country with narrow roads just room for two cars to pass one side of road verge gone only very rough edge and mud some drivers will not pull to side when passing always other driver who as to go into the rough mostly porch cars they don’t want to get there cars dirty they have no thought about anybody else

There seems to be little doubt that people driving with only one headlight working is on the increase in the UK, though it is not yet as common in our cities as in some places ( Moscow springs to mind) . However the very diversity of the comments sparked by this item points to the need for a MULTI- PRONGED approach. For if the aim is to maximise the safety of our roads for all road users, then getting motorists to check for and replace blown bulbs is only ONE step (albeit an important one ). Other steps are required as well, and not just from motorists. For example:

Car manufacturers should make it cheap and easy for motorists to replace bulbs themselves, as indeed used to be the case. It is disincentive to responsible car maintenance, and really should not be necessary, to have to pay large amounts of money to a garage for something so simple. (Also, garages should not be handed more ways to make money anyway!)

Greater regulation and standardisation of the power of modern car headlights is needed so that oncoming motorists are not dazzled and therefore unable to see other hazards which may be nearby eg. pedestrians crossing the road. It seems to be a feature of large/ luxury cars in particular that their headlights are brighter than necessary.

Cyclists and pedestrians should be required by law to wear bright, reflective or hi-vis clothing when it is dark, or even getting dark. We can learn something from Norway in this regard. Driving at twilight can be difficult enough anyway, especially in the winter months when the sun is low. Cyclists and pedestrians should also have sufficient ( but not dazzling) lighting, for example an LED torch, so that they can be easily seen from a distance.

In the absence of routine enforcement by the Police, members of the public should at least be given the means to report easily any motorists, cyclists or pedestrians who endanger themselves or others by not being readily visible, especially at dusk or at night, or who fail to observe the Highway Code ( e.g. by jaywalking). There is really no excuse for anyone to endanger himself/herself on the highway. A collision with a car would not only be disastrous for them – it would also be traumatic for the motorist who had not been able to see them.

In short, safety on our increasingly congested roads requires a collaborative, responsible approach from ALL road users.

I absolutely agree that we need to work together to make our roads as safe as possible. I keep a LED torch in each coat pocket (plus a carrier bag in case I go shopping). Even the light on a mobile phone could save your life.

We once had good motoring organisations that used to take up issues, such as the easy replacement of light bulbs, with the manufacturers and the Transport department.

The manufacturers seem to be intent on competing against each other now to see who can design the most hideous front end so that positioning and access to the headlights are just afterthoughts.

John, I miss the proactive AA and RAC. Now they apear to have no interest in pursuing motorists’ causes. They could have intervened in parking penalties. but I saw no sign of that.

As far as changing manufacturers’ design is concerned, however, this would need international – or at least European – pressure. The AA could not do it, nor the UK government. It will need to come from the EU. I consider that all safety-critical maintenance on a car, including the lights, should be made simple for the ordinary owner to do. I would like to see this legislated for.

European consumer groups under the BEUC umbrella have the weight of numbers to start this process. Has Which? a view on this on behalf of all the UK members who subscribe to pay for it? Perhaps they should survey members’ opinions, and the wider public.

I agree Malcolm. I was just thinking that Which? is getting stretched too thinly in too many directions with the consequences we occasionally comment on. It would be good if there were some organisation dedicated to motorists’ concerns who could make representations and pressurise the relevant authorities on behalf of car buyers and users – after all car ownership represents a massive part of consumer spending.

The AA and RAC do splutter about petrol prices from time to time.

There seem to be very few special interest consumer organisations left now – the only other national one I can think of off the top of my head is the Campaign for Real Ale, and there are a number of railway line user groups, but nobody to stand up for the motorist.

CAMRA is one of a select group (that includes Which?) of organisations that can make super-complaints. I would join them if they promoted moderation in drinking.

What annoyed me about the AA and RAC was they ignored environmental issues, which I don’t think is acceptable. I remember reading about universal spare wheels to help deal with the increasing number callouts to vehicles with no spare. I would have been happier if they had campaigned to retain the spare wheel on all new cars, even as an option.

Hi @gmartin – Some of us are fed-up with manufacturers making it difficult to change headlight and other bulbs on cars and complaints can be found in a variety of other Convos about cars, both about the safety issue and the cost/inconvenience of having to have the job done.

I have not seen any comments to justify why a once simple job is often complicated and requires the use of tools. It would be good to compliment those manufacturers that make life easy for owners of their cars.

Please can you tell us if Which? is going to do anything to help us?

Thanks George. We have the advantage that this is a safety issue and car manufacturers might not welcome being shamed for making it difficult or impossible to replace failed bulbs at the roadside. It would be great if we could be promote any manufacturer that manages to design its cars properly in this respect.

Thanks again. Maybe it’s an issue to share with other European consumers’ associations. I look forward to developments.

This can only be dealt with through a strong representation which, in my view, has to be, from our side, through a European consumer organisation. BEUC is the umbrella organisation for European consumer organisations. I do not know what clout it has but it should surely be the one collating its members views and campaigning.

karen stamp says:
21 February 2016

There should be a warning light on dashboard about lighting up, and when bulbs have failed. Also those very bright headlights should be banned

I think the lights should just come on automatically when visibility is poor and light levels fall.

One of the problems with our car is that if I put the lights on in the daytime because of heavy rain or mist, the car thinks it must be night-time so it dims the instrument lights on the dashboard.

I saw a large goods vehicle yesterday with twelve additional headlights mounted on top of the cab and across a lower bar above the bumpers. I have often wondered why some lorries have this sort of array – are there situations perhaps in freight terminals or container transfer areas where a flood of light is necessary, or is it just a novelty embellishment for showing off?

You should be able to adjust the brightness of the instrument lights, John.

I have always assumed that lorry lights are a long-established form of decoration and I have never seen them used in anger. In normal use, the cab-top lights are often illuminated by a small bulb, but maybe offending the driver would trigger a mobile version of the Blackpool Illuminations.

My car has “automatic lights” that can be selected. In lower light the instrument lighting changes from white to amber. I have not found any problem with this.