/ 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?


I blame the car manufactures for their design that make it so difficult on modern cars to fix faulty lights. I carry spare bulbs and can if pressed change a bulb on some of my cars but its not a roadside fix. I’ve been driving a Merc for a few weeks with only one dipped beam (but compensated with foglight) due to a faulty ballast and that is a nightmare to source the part and fit. Not happy with the situation but needs must.

R.A.Jordan says:
22 February 2016

I agree that headlight failures are a problem, my offside dimmed light failed and I had to get the garage to change it, I was informed by the garage that if it had been the nearside then the battery would have to be removed to replace the bulb. I carry a spare set of bulbs, but there is no way I cold change the bulb if they blew whilst on a journey. The car manufacturers should bear this in mind when they design a new model

Now drive Citroen C3 picasso bulbs are easy to change but last car a Citron C3 they were a bugger to change, one side needed the air hoses disconnected even you could not see what you were doing.
Could see in the back of the headlamp shell with torch and mirror or feel with hand but not both at same time.

A. Hardie says:
22 February 2016

My VW Up! Owners Manual gives detailed information on how to replace the various bulbs. However there is no specification for the actual bulbs required. Not exactly convenient as you have to remove the rear light cluster before you can remove a bulb to see what is required for a replacement.
On another tack, I am irritated by the many drivers who switch on front and rear fog lights when driving conditions do not warrant it. It doesn’t make them any more visible, rear fog lights cause unnecessary dazzle and why waste fuel.

It is illegal to drive with front or front and rear fog lights when the conditions do not require them.

My car, a Renault Modus, is so designed and constructed that the front of the car has to be dismantled in order to change a headlight bulb. On the occasions when a bulb has blown I have had to take the car to a garage for it to be replaced: the cost of changing the bulb being several times the cost of the replacement bulb itself.

One irony of this is that in France one is required to carry spare bulbs and to replace them at the first opportunity. Yet a French company designs and produces a vehicle where compliance with this requirement is virtually impossible.

That’s history. 🙁 As I posted earlier, there is no longer a requirement to carry spare bulbs in France or most other European countries, though I expect many residents and visitors still do.

When I first became aware of the problem I contacted a manufacturer and got a polite but unhelpful reply. It was the same when I contacted manufacturers about models with excessively bright LED brake lights.

And years ago small and mid-range Renaults and Citroëns used to be quite utilitarian with bolt-on parts that were easily changed.

That is an absurd situation and one can only wonder how the EU and their friends the car manufacturers got away with an essentially anti-consumer and anti-safety design.

I have been interested since around 2005 when I read a couple travelling to the Continent had to go to a Volvo garage to get the lights switched for Continental driving at a mere £75.

A friend of mine needed a new headlamp bulb for his Renault Modus, when he realised that he could not fit the bulb himself he contacted the local Renault dealer, they wanted £150 to change the bulb.
He found a non franchised garage to change the bulb for £80. Its mad.

graeme says:
23 March 2016

I believe you could even get ‘Haynes Manuals’.

David Russell says:
22 February 2016

Yes it is a growing problem. I regularly do a 30 mile journey at night on main roads through rural un-light areas. I have been counting recently and between 5-10% of cars have only one headlight. It is also clear that some of these drivers (with dip beam failure lights) realise they have a problem because they do not dip their headlights until flashed.
I have talked about this with friends and from my own experience it is far easier to change a bulb that manufacturers or often garages claim. Having to take out the battery, with all the consequential issues, is often one quoted but is frequently not required. False claims by garages that the whole headlight unit has to be replaced is also one I have heard of twice recently. Yes sometimes headlight bulb replacement can be difficult and expensive but some garages are abusing this occasional problem to lift prices enormously.

Youtube is a great source of information on how to do things yourself.

My Volvo is almost impossible to change the offside headlamp without removing the electronic control unit. I need to have multible jointed arms, hands and fingers! As it is a legal requierment, to have all headlights working, should car manufactorers be made to make bulb changing simpler?

P. Manser says:
22 February 2016

Interesting… I agree that it is now commonplace to see vehicles with defective lighting and my thoughts are for spot fines to be introduced if only we had a police in force. However, the problem has been discussed with my petrol head friends with the result that it is no longer an easy DIY job to replace bulbs in many modern cars, partly because the manufacturers want to involve their dealerships and promote maintenance costs for greater profit. As far back as 1997, my previous car – VW Passat – I was discouraged to carry out bulb replacements because the instruction booklet carried the warning “At risk of death”!

Glyn Jones says:
22 February 2016

I drive a Honda S2000 – Xenon dip beams – effectively a mercury discharge lamp operating at around 30,000volts. Replacement from Honda £98 yes £98! Halfords £59 & Amazon £29 – all for the same Philips lamp! Catch is you need a four post lift to access the headlamp from under the wing plus someone to hold back the wing liner after you have disconnected the battery and discharged the invertor pack before removing the bulb wearing rubber gloves – straightforward but not a roadside or home job. Can be removed from under the bonnet if you have the hands of a very small child but not sure even then if the LHS one can be done! Takes about 60 minutes workshop time.

Congratulations Glyn. It’s always good to hear of people doing what manufacturers say we should leave up to their agents.

In microwave ovens there is usually a resistor to ensure that the large capacitor does not store charge for any length of time, and I hope that xenon lamp ballasts are designed in the same way.

I keep heater elements to discharge capacitors which we have many of up to 2x6800uf at 450v 105c rating in the one corner of each controler plus another 3 smaller ones in other corners,,,,,,,,,,,,

Like Wave says Glyn,,,,good on you

I cannot see why things cannot be done by ones self…………..But they dont make things easy whether your diy or working for a dealer…………
The mechanics in the dealers dont have any magic way of getting at these things either………But you pay for the time nevertheless……………….

The only thing we dont do at home is remapping because we dont need to do this often enough to warrant the expense of trying………….
Everything else can be done………All the software and leads are all available pretty cheaply now and there are loads of our adult children well able to figure how to get it going…………….
Once they open the door as such I know where I am
They dont all operate in the same manner but the outcome is always recognisable………….
It’s not so rocket science as it’s made out you know……………

Any good mechanic that once knew how any mechanical diesel fuel system worked will quickly know his way around…………
Diesel is more or less the same as a petrol system as far as electronics go apart from the exhaust filter values more or less…………………and no one has been afraid of petrol injection for years I hope……………Its much less troublesome anyhow compared to diesel but it occasionally goes wrong………………

Modern gearboxes,,,,,,,,mostly front wheel drive are much easier to work on than than many older style boxes were………..

Wheel bearings today dont even need experience to preset as did the once tapered rollers,,,,,,,,,,,,The hub and bearing are one unit,,,,,,,,fit and tighten and thats it………….

Where there are load of things going wrong is lack of grease and oil…………….

We have never and I mean never needed a brake caliper and we live in a pretty wet and westerly place……..Pump the pistons well out,,,,,,,,lift the rubber boot and squeeze in as much red rubber grease as you can………..Clamp or screw the pistons back in and pump them out a few times and your caliper will never seize
Remove the pads and carriers every spring and make sure all the pads can be fitted by hand……..If you need a hammer there’s too much rust in the carriers,,,,often below the little stainless anti rattle thingys………….

Take a good old fashioned oil can and oil all the hinges and closing mechanisms………Oil can,,,, not a white grease aerosol……..

Every nut and bolt you take off make sure you have use either the oil can or better still for those spray chain grease……………Dont lube them and they’ll be seized solid in a few months

Diesel owners remove heater plugs at least once a year even if they are not failed and clean all the surfaces including the threads and you’ll never have a seized heat plug………..Dont over tighten them……

Sand paper well and spray grease the hub spigots where the road wheel centers on and you’ll not be stuck along the road with a flat wheel no one can get off…………

Look up the road wheel nut/bolt torque for your car and you’ll get a surprise that they are not done up like a Scania wheel or should not be…………
Most wheels are seriously over tightened making it all but impossible to remove with the silly little wheel brace in the boot………..

As a matter of fact DIY is good because you are pretty unlikely to get this done unless you do it yourself…………

Prevention is better than cure just the same as smoking………

G Bernstin says:
22 February 2016

In and around the London Borough of Brent, there are many, many vehicles with only one light working. Frequently, this light is undipped. This is combined with dreadful driving standards such as vehicles pulling out from side streets without looking to the right, forcing other drivers to brake violently or swerve to avoid a collosion. I really wonder how many of these drivers have valid UK licences.

Barry Faith says:
22 February 2016

My wife was involved in an accident many years ago. This was during the evening and so no daylight. She was turning right in front of a parked car which had its offside headlight not working. She saw two headlights, but one was a motorcyclist who was overtaking the car at speed, and accelerating at a great rate – – – -. The motorcyclist hit the side of her car and he somersaulted over its roof. Fortunately he was not hurt and neither was his motorcycle damaged. However wifey’s car needed a new door – – – – – . Several years later I wrote to the Chief Constable of Dorset Police (where we now live) about the problem of cars with defective headlights and the response was desultory, dismissing the accident as, ‘rare’. These days when driving of a night time I notice many cars with defective headlights and tail & brake lights. The implication is that drivers are not checking them, or and/or do not appreciate the dangers. A concerted effort by placing a single policeman on duty at main-conurbation junctions along with a local publicity campaign could ensure drivers are motivated to carry out this essential part of their driver maintenance; especially if as a result of a faulty light they were expected to report to a police station within (say) 48 hours, with the defective light corrected – – – or even better, report to a police station with an MoT inspection report dated after the date of the faulty light being noted – – -. The inconvenience of attending the police station along with the cost of an MoT may persuade such people to check their lights.

I dont know why the police dont stop and book drivers when they have a light out they do have that power. And They dont stop cyclists either when they are not using lights so when the motorist collides with the bike the driver gets it in the neck!

Can camera’s that are used for other traffic duties not be used for this as the calls for police to do anything are but waste of time…………Surely it could not too hard to have the camera report back as they all do and the software know whether the vehicle should have two headlights or one and automatically send out a spot fine with the photo………Even a small fine and no points is all it’ll take to discourage this lack of interest in ones own vehicle

For many years I have known that car bulbs have to carry an E mark, but wondered what the associated number means. Apparently it depends on the country issuing the approval, so for example E1 is Germany, E4 is the Netherlands and E11 is the UK. Hopefully all spare bulbs do carry an E mark, and any that don’t might be of inferior quality.

The one to watch out for is marked EIEI0

On a slightly different tack … I have had the experience of being blind (observing only white light or a grey mass or total black vision in one eye) and the other eye rapidly deteriorating to the same level over a period of some 3 (three) months by reason of “catarract” problems.

Thankfully I have now had both eyes “replaced” but I remember with horror the difficulty that I had in establishing a vehicle approaching me – and I include invisible cyclists who appear to have no knowledge (of anything).

Without the use of – “StereoVision” – it is not possible to calculate the approach speed of any vehicle nor to ascertain that the vehicle will, in the near future, inhabit the same spatial co-ordinates as myself.

Indeed, such vehicle may well be invisible, if on the other side of my nose.

Try it for yourself – your nose does not have to be inordinately large for the effect to become apparent.

I now drive – always – with a minimum of dipped headlights – checked constantly by means of watching the reflections on the rear of the vehicle in front, when the occasion arises and I can count the number of bulbs that I can observe so reflected.

In bright sunshine the effect is even worse – when combined with e.g. a building shadow.

So now I know that when I drive from brilliant daylight into a building shadow – there are 2 (two) things that someone will regognise as being “WRONG” and “MOVING”.

I thank you and rest my case.


I am fed up with extra bright bluish halogen headlights. They dazzle oncoming traffic and are as hazardous as car with one headlight.

Driving in the dark, not twilight the other day I noticed a car that only had one side light working and no headlights. Since the Police car along side me appeared unconcerned. I wondered how members of the public can be convinced that this matters. I do have to say though that I cannot change the lights on my present car and have to take it into the garage to get it done. All cars I have had before I have been able to change them myself. If a light goes between the services the garage is very good and does not charge me but it is a question of getting there rather the being able to stop and change the bulb immediately

What amazes me is that people just don’t seem to notice that their ability to see is degraded.

I have noticed a lot of vehicles with one headlight out, however what concerns me as much is vehicles with their headlights set too high so they are blinding. Even a John Lewis HGV lorry yesterday had the same issue, which I thought would be better maintained? Seems to have got worse over the last few years.

It’s now excessively difficult to change headlights on most modern cars, it’s a major design fault that they are so user unfriendly. Even though I carry spare bulbs the reality is I have to go to Halfords or some such place during working hours to get it replaced. Bulbs also now don’t seem to last as long as they used to – I seem to have to replace each headlight at least once a year

Perhaps you are just unlucky, Heather. 🙁 If other bulbs are failing then you may have a problem with your alternator and that would shorten the life of the battery. Any garage could make a quick check to see if there is a problem.

I have listened to mechanics say that 14.9v is acceptable……..Wrong,,,So wave is very likely correct

I would be concerned about a voltage of 14.5 or above when the engine is running.

Yes Wave 14.2 should be the upper limit however we are the middle of changes
We have ECU controlled alternators now and they perform more like a solar charge controller and do spike the battery volts to near 15 but it’s only momentarily in order to establish how high the battery is
This has came about with all this 5yr 7yr warranties etc because the batteries cannot be allowed to fail during that period otherwise thats a warranty cliam
The ECU controlled charge system can and mostly does make a better job of charging the battery fully without endlessly hammering it with over 14v
Many of these systems are diagnosed as undercharging because they have been tested at only 13.6v or slightly lower
This is perfectly normal and may not be undercharging
Testing of these systems needs the charge volts to be tested and if the reading is low then drwin the battery for a few minutes with the lights and test again and the system should be showing higher volts
it seems we now have a near blanket idea about near 15 being acceptable when it’s not and it is not a matter of a spike to 15 when regulators are holding well over 14v constant. . . Over 14.2 constant is too much and will damage bulbs and eventually the battery
Again the general public have to rely on supposed experts who are far from experts to decide these things
If you go to your local tyre and battery place they can test a battery with an artificial load that they place across the terminals but they will have little to no idea about charge volts and some will send you to a garage/mechanic who should be able to test charge volts but often isn’t
I have heard just a few days ago in an auto-electric repair shop that 14.7 was or should be correct. . .It was in connection with an alternator I got my cousin to take in and check. . .The alternator was off a middle size Massey with all the electrical gear shift stuff and the “shuttle” was misbehaving as such
I had already checked everything and already had myself convinced myself the voltage was too high
The tractor is also on the second set of batteries in 3 years which is not a good sign
I ask them to replace the regulator anyhow as they are not expensive and even if I was doing it myself that would be where I’d be going for the regulator anyhow
Note I took it there because I dont have a test bench with a dummy load any longer
We brought the alternator home and the “shuttle” has been working fine since
The next problem is that the batteries are now not holding charge again which tells me they have been overcharged repeatedly……
Two good or new batteries can hold the charge down. . . Many of these machines have two 12v batteries in parallel which was never a good idea either as one will always be behind the other as such and one will fail before the other and they dont do well with an old and new pairing
A vehicle charge system should never be over 14.2v for more than a couple of seconds if even that
Normal full battery state is 14.2v with the basic and still most popular charge system
It difficult getting anyone to switch on a meter and read it it seems with any knowledge

That might be rather too technical for Heather and most of the readers, DK. 🙂
Thanks for the information about ECU-controlled alternators.

The ideal on-charge voltage for batteries has risen over the years as we have moved to maintenance-free lead acid batteries and more recently to AGM batteries in some cars.

I advised a friend to take his alternator to a specialist for repair. The regulator was faulty and the repair cost only £35, but obviously there is an additional charge for removal and replacement of the alternator.

Yes Wave you are correct about the different battery types but for the most part flooded/sealed are the most popular and probably for automotive use the best and that is why they tend to be the popular fitments
Motorcycles often use gel because of irregular shape of fitting. . on their side etc
And yes it might be a bit tech for some but there may be some readers who are able to understand
There’s little point in reading if you are not learning

The different later types can require or better put can tolerate slightly higher charge voltages but mark my word if you take any of them to 14.7 and hold them there you’ll kill them just as you’ll shorten the bulb life i.e. a bulb normal 12v auto bulb is rated around 13.5v so a 55w bulb at around 14v will be 60w odd and at 15v will increase its wattage to circa 70w. . .Now that is a little high and will seriously shorten it’s life. .
So yes I do ramble a little but one has to put to bed the idea albeit well meaning that bulbs should be mandatory changed every year and that bulbs now dont last as long which as best I see will mostly only result from either high voltage or tiny light units or both and that’s worse case as such

For Heather to have to replace 2 headlight bulbs per year is not unusual as I have seen loads of that all my life and without doubt the prime cause’s are too high volts and fingers
I added the battery info in as maybe a little guideline to suggest for those who keep their cars long enough that if they suffer premature bulb failures and regular battery failures there is an underlying problem

If one can suffer me a little longer, Malcolm has already pointed out about not touching the glass of many headlight bulbs. . .This is fact although clean not oily fingers should not leave enough residue to do any harm but it is best to simply not touch the glass. . end of. . Nada etc

The tell-tale for this for the common man is that if your bulbs are failing due to high volts it should not be confined to the headlights alone and I would expect around a 50% rate failure of side lights compared to the headlight failures.
Side lights are mostly not halogen and are not effected in the same way as headlight bulbs by touching the glass

If your suffering only failed headlights I’d try a new installer in the hope the next one may not touch the glass

Brake lights may also fail if your sitting with your foot on the brake
Indicator bulbs are pretty much not effected as they are intermittent and are of no different design or spec to a brake light bulb
LEDs are a whole new ball park and would need a new story as such

Presumably all bulbs are checked during at MOT but there is no guarantee bulbs will remain working for the years duration before the next one is due. It should be mandatory that bulbs are regularly replaced either as part of the MOT or maybe as part of an annual service.

Last week I went for an eye test to see whether my eyes are fit to drive and with lens correction, thankfully, I still have 20/20 vision. During exchanged dialogue with the optician I raised the issue under discussion on WhichConvo of only one headlight working and the problem of drivers unable to distinguish between oncoming cars and motorbikes. He agreed with my concerns and emphasised the importance of people of “a certain age” having regular eye tests as ones age could go against you in the event of an accident. I would point out that you don’t have to be aged to have defective eyesight and the importance of every driver having routine eye checks if they want to stay on the road

That said, being involved in this topic has increased my awareness of the number of cars displaying rows of daytime lights on both front near and offsides of vehicles which are quite unnecessary and garish and can be quite distracting, as has already been pointed out. Another issue which has already been raised on a previous Convo is the ever increasing number of illuminated and confusing road traffic signs appearing everywhere . If only Highway Depts would spend more of their allocated funding on road maintenance such as fixing pot holes and less on road signs there would be a lot more contented and appreciative drivers on our roads.

Beryl, , I have seen bulbs last for up to 10 years and others a matter of weeks so mandatory changing wont make much difference
Many bulbs are blown buy too high battery voltage and no one is checking that plus many of todays bulbs remain as were but are stuck inside tiny little light units and overheat
Your right they may not last from one MOT to the next but if we went be the book we would check every light function, , horn and condition of windscreen wipers before we step into the car. . There’s not many do that or would want to. . .
Commercial drivers are expected to check their lights including brake lights with the use of a 3rd foot every time they go out or every time they hitch up to a trailer

The “the extra leg (or should I say foot!!!) practiced by commercial drivers DeeKay makes a lot of sense and could you elaborate a little more to an uninitiated but interested driver.

Clearly there needs to be a complete rethink into the design and durability of light bulbs. As things stand at present, the onus is very much on the vehicle owners until another solution is found by the motor industry to prevent the enormous expense involved in some cases to replace what amounts to what should be a simple task turning into a very expensive procedure.

Sorry for the delay Beryl, , Something to do with finding my way back

The 3rd foot/extra foot we call it locally so it may be called some other much better and up to date name that no doubt no one over the age of 10 will understand is a requirement I think for commercial drivers and I’d imagine there are variations on it but basically it a mechanical device that can be placed often between the seat base and the brake pedal in order to allow the driver to walk back the many meters to check the brake lights
As to actual law I am not sure but I do know that at some point in recent years it has became the norm to expect “O” licence drivers to have checked all their lights including brake lights daily or if they hook up to another/new trailer and there is not much other way to do this
It is not good enough to use the excuse that there was no one around. . Apparently that does not hold water and rightfully so
search for theextrafoot.com

Thanks for the explanation DeeKay, I will feel a lot less anxious next time I find myself trailed by a long juggernaut type vehicle on the motorway.

It’s such a simple but effective device and should an essential part of every vehicles main kit.

They might also use it on the accelerator whilst they relax with a flask of tea and The Sun?

I mentioned using a wooden stick near the start of this Convo. I didn’t know it was standard practice. When I had my first car I had a telescopic steering wheel lock, an ‘Eagle Claw’ which did the job very well and I continued to use this for a few years after I had a car with a steering lock.

My car tests the dipped headlights, tail lights and indicators when I press the key fob. It would be more useful if the brake lights were tested and I could get rid of my wooden stick – or third foot.

Another handy tool is a couple of short lengths of hardwood rod that fit snugly in the holes for the wheel bolts. When changing a wheel you simply hang the wheel on the rods, so that you don’t need to hold the wheel in position when replacing the bolts.

This presupposes that the manufacturer has thought to provide a spare wheel for the car.

. . . and that you have the locking-wheel-nut release tool with you and can undo the pressure-tightened nuts.