PSA: Test Your Car Headlights!

The picture that started it all.

The other day, I was lounging productively on the sofa, when my friend texted me. “Hey! Come check out the Lunar New Year festival!” followed by a picture of my favorite thing, lion dance. I got off my lazy butt, hopped in the car, and drove downtown. After spending a sunny afternoon wandering around and catching up, night had fallen, and I got in my car to drive home. As I pulled out, I saw a dreaded thing in the rearview mirror: flashing blue lights. I pulled over.

Why don’t you have your headlights on?” asked the officer.
What do you mean? My headlights are on!” I said.
No they’re not.

But I could see the beam of my headlights on the road ahead. I got out of my car to check. In fact, my main headlights were not on, only some kind of lower lights (which I later found out are called fog lights), which I had thought were my headlights… Sigh.

I signed the ticket and drove resignedly home. The ticket didn’t say the price, but I figured it’d be less than $100, maybe $75 or so. I bought new replacement bulbs on Amazon for $20 and installed them myself. Easy peasy, I thought. All good.

About a week later, I logged in online to pay the ticket. “Pay the full amount: $237, plus a $5.95 convenience fee,” the screen read. I double-checked the ticket. “Not correctable”. WHAT?!?

So, ladies and germs, this is your Public Service Announcement (PSA) to always check that your headlights are fully functioning. Don’t make the same mistake! Cars actually have multiple exterior lights with different functionality, and it’s important to test them routinely to avoid $200+ traffic tickets. I couldn’t find any clear-cut instructions with photos online, so I wrote this post hopefully to be helpful to others, and also as a reminder to myself.*

(If you don’t have a car, you can stop reading now and just enjoy the fact that you don’t need to take care of this mechanical beast of burden.)

*An alternate clickbait-y title that I considered for this post was “7 Simple Steps to Save You $250” 😉

How to Test Your Car Lights By Yourself

First, you have to know which lights are which. The photos below are from my 2005 Pontiac Vibe. Other cars may have slightly different configurations, but they should all have the essential lights (fog lights and backup lights are optional, I think). On my car, the high/low beams and the tail/stop lights are combined into a single lamp at different brightnesses, but they can also be separate.

Detailed view of front and rear lights.
Rear lights.

Next, there are a bunch of knobs and buttons that you should test. I’ve listed the knobs/buttons you need to try below, and the expected lights that should turn on. These steps can all be done by a single person, preferably at nighttime.

1) Headlights knob

  • parking.gifParking mode: front turn signal (solid amber), rear tail light (solid red), rear license plate (solid white)
  • low.gifLow beam mode: front turn signal (solid amber), front low beams (solid white), rear tail lights (solid red), rear license place (solid white)

2) High beams

  • fb19e6c7a355e13a4e562afd59dce47a.pngFront high beams (solid white)

3) Left/right turn signal

  • turn.gifFront left/right turn signal (flashing amber)

4) Hazard light

  • em.gifFront turn signals (flashing amber), rear turn signals (flashing amber)

5) Fog lamps

  • 2f6fda23-654e-4e41-b29a-5cc0ebbe99a6_200Front fog lights (solid white)

6) Reverse gear

  • Test this by putting the car in reverse, then activating the emergency brake
  • Rear backup light (solid white)

7) Brake pedal

  • Test this by putting something on the brake pedal, like a mop or a brick
  • Red stop lights (solid red)

If you prefer a video tutorial, instead, this video is very helpful. Personally, I prefer text or image-based instructions, because I can look at the details. With video tutorials, you have to sit through the entire thing and take notes on what happened, for when you try to replicate it yourself. Same thing for news: I’d much rather read an article than watch the talking heads that pop-up on news websites.

Hopefully that wasn’t too boring! Have you ever been shocked by the price of traffic tickets? I once got a $100 parking ticket in NYC, which I thought was high, but $250 for having busted headlights? It’s pretty crazy!

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