Car Lights and Headlights Explained

Car lights

When you’re getting the hang of driving, you often focus on mastering the clutch, navigating junctions, and nailing those tricky test manoeuvres. Yet, what often gets less attention are the various car lights you have at your fingertips.

Knowing what each light on your dashboard means and the right time to use your car’s lights is crucial. Misusing them, or forgetting to use them altogether, could land you with a fine or even penalty points on your licence. To help you out, we’ve put together a straightforward guide on car lights.

We’ll guide you through the essentials about car lights, explaining their locations and the appropriate times to use them.

The Different Types of Car Lights and Headlights

Every car, regardless of brand or model, is equipped with a standard set of lights that serve various purposes. Although the way we operate these lights may differ slightly from one vehicle to another, their location is typically uniform. It’s essential to grasp the function of each light and the regulations that govern their use.

Let’s explore the different lights your car has and their uses…

Brake Lights

  • Positioned at the rear of the vehicle
  • Emit a bright red signal
  • Activate automatically when the brake pedal is pressed

Brake lights are crucial for communicating with other drivers. When you slow down, these lights signal to others to do the same, which helps prevent rear-end shunts.

When stationary, especially in traffic jams, it’s better to use the handbrake and shift to neutral. This action turns off the brake lights, preventing glare for drivers behind you and sparing your clutch from unnecessary wear.

Brake lights

But remember, brake lights are out of your direct line of sight, so they can be easy to neglect. It’s vital to check them regularly—about once a week.

Not just to avoid the inconvenience of being stopped by the police and possibly facing a fine of £60 and three penalty points, a Vehicle Defect Rectification Notice, or even having your car taken off the road, but also to ensure you’re not posing a risk to others.

A faulty brake light could lead to a dangerous situation if the driver behind fails to realise you’re slowing down.

Simple Brake Light Check:

  • Have someone stand behind your vehicle
  • Apply the brakes
  • They can confirm if the lights illuminate properly

By regularly performing this quick check, you can drive assured that you’re safe and compliant with road safety regulations.

Dipped headlights

Dipped headlights play a central role in your car’s lighting system. Located at the front of your car, these lights are essential for several reasons. The name ‘dipped’ comes from their design; they are angled downwards to illuminate the road surface rather than shining straight forward.

Dipped headlights

Here’s why and how you should use your dipped headlights:

  • They improve your visibility at night, especially in urban areas with street lighting.
  • During the day, they help you see better in poor weather conditions, like rain or fog.
  • The rule of thumb for using them is when visibility is less than 100 metres.

It’s not just about your own visibility – dipped headlights also ensure other road users can see you. It’s essential to routinely check that both headlights are in working order. Driving without them is not only dangerous, as you’d be almost invisible on faster roads after dark, but it’s also against the law.

If a headlight isn’t working and you’re stopped by the authorities, you might face:

  • A fixed penalty notice with a penalty of £60 and three points on your driving licence.
  • A Vehicle Defect Rectification Notice, giving you a fortnight to sort the issue out.
  • In the worst case, your vehicle could be deemed unsafe and removed from the road.

To avoid these consequences, it’s wise to:

  • Regularly check the function of your dipped headlights.
  • Replace bulbs promptly if one fails – carrying a spare set in your car is a smart move.
  • Seek professional help if you’re unsure how to replace a bulb or if there’s an electrical fault.
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Maintaining your dipped headlights isn’t just about following the law – it’s a crucial safety practice. Take the time to ensure they’re always in good working order to keep the roads safe for everyone.

Fog lights

Fog lights are specialised lights designed for one particular situation: driving in fog. For new drivers, encountering fog can be intimidating due to the severely reduced visibility which makes spotting potential hazards quite tricky.

Fog lights

In the UK, it’s not just about convenience; it’s a legal requirement for all vehicles to be fitted with at least one rear fog light. Many modern cars are equipped with both front and rear fog lights to combat poor visibility.

When should you use them?

  • Turn on your fog lights when you can’t see more than 100 metres ahead. This could be due to fog, heavy rain, or snow.
  • Your front fog lights assist in lighting the road ahead, while the rear ones make your car more visible to those driving behind you.

Remember, fog lights are significantly brighter than regular lights. So it’s crucial to:

  • Switch them off as soon as conditions improve. Failure to do so could dazzle other drivers, increasing the risk of an accident.
  • Not use them as a substitute for headlights in clear conditions, as they can cause unnecessary glare.

Some additional tips:

  • It’s good practice to familiarise yourself with your car’s controls so you can find the fog light switch easily when needed.
  • Check that your fog lights are operational during regular car maintenance. It’s something that can be easily overlooked.
  • Be mindful of other drivers when using fog lights. If you’re waiting in stationary traffic or stopped at lights, consider turning them off temporarily to avoid dazzling drivers in front and behind you.

In essence, fog lights are a safety feature designed to work in your favour, but only when used appropriately. Remembering these tips will help ensure that you stay safe and compliant on the roads during adverse weather conditions.

Full beam headlights

Full-beam headlights, also known as main beams, are the most powerful lights on your car, intended to provide maximum visibility. Situated at the front, their design allows for a wide and long reach, illuminating the road extensively.

Full beam headlights

Here’s how and when to use them:

  • Turn on your full beams for better visibility on roads without street lighting, such as country lanes or during rural night driving.
  • They are most beneficial and should only be used when there are no other vehicles in sight, as their brightness can blind other drivers.

When using full beams:

  • Switch to dipped headlights when facing oncoming traffic or when you’re following another vehicle to avoid dazzling other road users.
  • Similarly, when you’re approaching a junction or about to overtake, ensure you revert to dipped beams to prevent temporarily blinding others.

In case your dipped headlights fail:

  • Do not resort to using your full beams as an alternative in well-lit areas or in traffic; this can be dangerous and is likely to cause discomfort or a hazard to other drivers.
  • Make it a priority to get the dipped headlights repaired as soon as you can.

Some tips for managing your headlights:

  • Regularly check the alignment and functionality of your full-beam headlights as part of your car’s maintenance.
  • Remember that in foggy conditions, full beams can reflect off the fog and reduce visibility, so they’re not a substitute for fog lights.

Using full-beam headlights responsibly is a crucial aspect of safe night-time driving. Always be mindful of their impact on other road users and switch accordingly to ensure everyone’s safety on the road.

Hazard lights

Hazard lights, also known as warning lights, serve as an important signal to other road users that something out of the ordinary is happening.

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Hazard lights

It’s essential to understand when their use is appropriate according to the Highway Code:

Here are the specific situations when you should use your hazard lights:

  • When you are obstructed and have come to a stop, thereby potentially causing an obstruction. It’s important to note that you should only stop in a legal parking spot; hazard lights do not legalise improper parking.

  • If your car has broken down and you’re awaiting assistance, activating your hazard lights helps alert other drivers to your presence and to pass carefully.

  • On motorways or dual carriageways, if you notice a hazard such as debris on the road or a broken-down vehicle ahead, briefly using your hazard lights can warn drivers behind you to be cautious.

When not to use hazard lights:

  • Avoid using them as an ‘all-clear’ signal or to thank someone, as they are meant for warning purposes.

  • Do not use hazard lights as an excuse for dangerous or illegal parking.

  • Using hazard lights when they’re not needed can confuse other road users and potentially lead to dangerous situations.

It’s also worth mentioning that while your hazard lights can increase visibility, they should not replace taking other safety measures. For instance, if your car breaks down, in addition to turning on your hazard lights, you should:

  • Move your vehicle away from traffic if possible.
  • Use reflective warning signs if available.
  • Stay a safe distance from the vehicle, especially if you’re on a busy road.

Remember, the misuse of hazard lights can not only be confusing but may also be against the law. Use them wisely to communicate effectively with other motorists and to enhance safety on the roads.


Indicators are fundamental to safe driving, and their correct use is an integral part of road communication. You’ll find these on both the front and rear of your car, adjacent to the headlights and tail lights.


Their purpose is to signal your intended direction changes to other road users, ensuring everyone is aware of your next move.

Here’s a simple guide on using indicators effectively:

  • Use your indicators well before you make a turn, change lanes, or pull over. This is not just a courtesy but a necessity for safety.

  • Pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists must be given enough warning of their intentions to react accordingly, which might include slowing down or altering their path.

  • Even if the road appears empty, it’s good practice to use your indicators. There might be someone you haven’t spotted, or someone could emerge unexpectedly.

  • The timing of your signal is vital. Signal too early, and you might mislead others into thinking you’re taking an immediate turn. Signal too late, and others have insufficient time to react to your actions, potentially causing confusion or even an accident.

Here are some additional points to remember about indicators:

  • When approaching roundabouts, it’s important to signal at the correct exit, to avoid misleading other drivers.

  • When parked at the side of the road, use your indicators when you’re about to pull back out into traffic to alert others.

  • After completing your manoeuvre, ensure your indicators are cancelled; some cars do this automatically, while others may require you to do it manually to avoid driving with your indicators flashing unnecessarily, which can be distracting and confusing for other road users.

Indicators are a driver’s means of communicating with the world outside the car. They’re not just an accessory but a crucial element of road safety protocol. Always use them with consideration and clear intent.


Sidelights, also known as parking lights, are positioned at the front corners of your vehicle. They’re more subtle compared to your main beams, but they play an essential role in road safety.

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Let’s look at when and how to use your sidelights:

  • At dusk or dawn: Your sidelights should be turned on during twilight hours when the sun is below the horizon, and visibility is decreasing.

  • When parking at night: If you’re leaving your car parked on a road with a speed limit over 30mph, sidelights are necessary to ensure other road users can spot your vehicle.

  • In poor visibility conditions: Even in daylight, if visibility is poor, sidelights can make your car more noticeable.

  • Before headlights are needed: Sidelights are a precursor to headlights; use them as the light begins to fade before it’s dark enough to require full headlights.

  • In conjunction with other lights: Often, sidelights are used together with dipped headlights to enhance visibility during the transition between day and night.

If you find yourself with a faulty headlight, here’s what you should do:

  • Immediately switch on your sidelights to maintain some level of visibility.

  • Remember, sidelights are not a long-term substitute for headlights. They are not as bright and won’t illuminate the road effectively in the dark.

  • Get the faulty light fixed as soon as possible. While sidelights can help distinguish your car from a motorcycle, they are not suitable for driving in darkness.

Regular checks of your sidelights are advisable to ensure they’re in working order. A quick walk around your car before a journey at night can save you from potential hazards and ensure you remain on the right side of the road laws.

Tail lights

Tail lights are an integral part of your vehicle’s lighting system, situated at the rear. They work in tandem with your headlights, illuminating automatically when the headlights are activated.

Tail lights

This seamless integration means you don’t have to worry about turning them on separately.

Here’s what you need to know about tail lights:

  • Automatic illumination: Tail lights come on as soon as your headlights are turned on, whether manually or through automatic sensors.

  • Visibility for others: The primary role of tail lights is to make your vehicle visible to drivers behind you, particularly in the dark or during poor weather conditions.

  • Safety indicator: The red glow from your tail lights helps drivers judge the distance between their vehicle and yours, which is crucial for maintaining safe spacing on the road.

  • Legal requirement: It’s a legal necessity to have working tail lights as they are fundamental to road safety. Driving without them not only endangers you and others but could result in legal penalties.

To ensure your tail lights are always functioning:

  • Check regularly: Make it a habit to check your tail lights often, especially before long journeys or when you expect to be driving at night.

  • Clean them: Keep the lens cover clean because dirt or snow can significantly dim the light output, making your vehicle less visible.

  • Promptly replace faulty bulbs: If a tail light goes out, replace it as soon as possible. Even one non-functioning light can significantly reduce other drivers’ ability to see your car.

Remember, tail lights are not just for night driving; they’re also vital in heavy rain, fog, or snow when daylight visibility is compromised. Always ensure they’re in good working order to stay safe and visible on the road.