Road rules: Traditional enforcement won’t solve issue of headlights that are too bright


Doug Dahl, the Target Zero manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, answers popular travel-related questions. 

Q: What is the enforcement protocol for aftermarket lights installed on cars and trucks? Where I live there are numerous vehicles that have swapped out stock headlights with bulbs that are blazingly blinding to oncoming traffic. In European countries, these cars would never last a day on the roads as they take vehicle safety more seriously.

A: Many of us in America have a deep-rooted urge to use our cars as a form of self-expression. I recall watching an episode of a British car enthusiast show, where the host (and this guy is car-obsessed) was genuinely confused about the American predisposition for over-the-top car modifications. 

I’ve been guilty of it myself. Eighteen-year-old me drove a 1963 Chevy Nova SS with a borderline ridiculous paint job and extra-wide fender flares in back to fit the beefy tires on my custom-painted Cragar five-spoke wheels. Why would you paint your Cragars? I thought it was cool and I regret selling that car.

Self-expression is part of car culture and, I’d argue, American culture. It’s not just the hard-core car crowd. It spans from the driveway mechanic to A-list celebrities. You can cover your Audi R8 in leopard print (looking at you Justin Bieber), paint your Hummer pink and trim it out like a Louis Vuitton bag (Britney Spears) or build a four-engine dragster (Tommy Ivo). Side note: The last two  of those people are former Mousketeers. 

The problem arises when self-expression turns into selfish expression. There’s a reason we have laws about vehicle equipment. Some of the modifications that people want to do can harm other road users. Your extra-bright headlights might make your car look cool in pictures, but if you’re blinding oncoming drivers you’ve moved from self-expression to being unkind and a hazard. Same goes for tires that stick out past your fenders. It’s a non-verbal way of telling other drivers you don’t care what happens to their windshield, and even more serious, telling pedestrians you don’t care about throwing a rock at their head. 

I did a little experiment and typed into Google, “Pickup truck tire size is inversely proportional to …” just to see what the autofill would suggest, and it answered, “intelligence.” You thought I was going somewhere else with that, didn’t you? 

Getting back to headlight modifications, there’s not a lot about your headlights that you can legally change. Pretty much, if a bulb burns out, you can buy another one just like it. Switching from halogen to HID or LED bulbs is not allowed. Yes, you can buy a conversion kit for your car. No, that doesn’t mean it’s street legal. Enforcement though, can be tricky. 

I’m oversimplifying here, but vehicle lighting laws are written at the federal level and adopted by states. If you’ve ever attempted to read the Code of Federal Regulations addressing vehicle lighting, you know it’s long and confusing. It comes in at the same length as Earnest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but unlike Hemmingway, it’s not winning any Pulitzers. Plus, knowing the law doesn’t make you an expert in lighting technology. Even if it did, officers don’t have a headlight testing kit in the trunk of their car. What I’m getting at here is that traditional enforcement alone isn’t going to solve this problem. A more practical approach might be annual vehicle safety inspections, which some states and many other countries do. Even better would be a cultural shift that continues to value self-expression but rejects selfish expression with our cars. If you want to be kind, you could do worse than to practice it while driving.