Knowing your external car lights

Ever wondered when to use full versus dipped beams - or when you should and shouldn't use your hazard lights? Read all about your car's exterior lights here.


By Marmalade Author

Updated on Dec 13th, 2022

Knowing your external car lights

Do you know your dipped beams from your side lights? Your fogs from your hazards? Using and maintaining your car lights correctly is all part and parcel of staying safe on the road, making life easier and safer for you and other road users. Here, we talk about the external lights on your car - once you've read this, be sure to check out our guide to dashboard lights.

External lights

External car lights perform a variety of functions. They’re not only there to help you see more clearly on the road, they’re there to alert other road users too. They form a key part of keeping our roads safe and the incorrect use of some of them is illegal - so it pays to know your stuff!

It’s important to ensure you keep your lights clean to maintain visibility, and to keep spare lights so they can be replaced quickly and easily when they fail.

Brake Lights  Brake lights

It may seem obvious but these are essential for letting drivers behind you know when you’re braking. By law you need to have two working brake lights. However, because they’re positioned on the back of your car it’s not unusual for you to go for a few days, without noticing that one of your bulbs has gone.

As soon as you’re aware that one of your brake lights is faulty, make sure you fit a new bulb straight away. If you’re stopped by police you could receive:

  • A verbal warning
  • A Roadside Prohibition Notice - which gives you 10 days to get it fixed
  • A £60 fine and 3 points on your licence
  • Worst case scenario – they could tow your car away!

It’s a good idea to check your brake lights once a week, not only because you don’t want to be caught out, but more importantly it could help avoid an accident – if your brake lights aren’t working there is no indication to the person behind that you are stopping.

Hazard Light  Hazard lights

These little orange blinkers alert other road users to the fact that your car is in trouble. It’s important to use these correctly:

  • If you’re stationary and causing a temporary obstruction (but only stop where it’s legal to do so - hazard lights can’t protect you from parking fines!)
  • To warn other drivers that you’ve broken down in a dangerous spot that could affect other traffic
  • To warn other drivers on motorways or dual carriageways that there’s a hazard ahead - this is the only situation in which you’re legally allowed to drive with your hazards light on
  • If you’ve broken down and stopped on the hard shoulder of the motorway

Full beam headlights  Full beam headlights

These are seriously bright lights - great for helping you gain as much visibility as possible in the dark. But there’s a reason why you’re not allowed to use full beams all the time; they’re so strong that they dazzle other road users, which can be really dangerous.

  • Only use them on empty stretches of road at night
  • Don’t use them in the daytime - use dipped beams or side lights instead
  • Switch to your dipped beams when you are overtaking at night
  • Don’t use them when one of your dipped beams is faulty or not working (these should be replaced straight away if they are not working)

Dipped beam headlights  Dipped beam headlights

These clever dipped lights tilt downwards, giving you extra visibility without dazzling oncoming traffic. As a result, these are the headlights you’re likely to use most of all. They’re safe to use:

  • At night - which is defined as the period between half an hour after sunset and half an hour before sunrise
  • During daytime when visibility is reduced

Make sure you have both dipped beams working. If you’re caught driving with just one, the police can issue a verbal warning, or a:

  • Roadside Prohibition Notice - 10 days to get the light fixed
  • Non-endorsable Fixed Penalty Notice - a £30 fine
  • Endorsable Fixed Penalty Notice - 3 penalty points and £60 fine

Side lights  Side lights

These are the small white lights located at the corners of the front of your car. When you switch these on, the licence plate and tail lights at the rear also illuminate.

They’re nowhere near as powerful as headlights, but they do still have plenty of important functions:

  • When visibility is low but not enough to require headlights, sidelights do the job and use less battery power too
  • Display parking lights when parked on a road or a lay-by on a road with a speed limit over 30mph
  • Valuable back up when one of your headlight bulbs blows, until you make your way to a safe place to replace the headlight. They alert other road users to the width of your car, and let them know that you’re a car not a motorbike

Fog light  Fog lights

When fog appears you want to have as much visibility as you can, and equally as important, to alert other road users to your presence too.

  • You should use one rear fog light in the UK when fog hits - this is the minumum number of fog lights that all cars are fitted with
  • Most new cars now come with front fog lights too
  • Never use fog lights when the weather is clear - you’ll face a £30 fine
  • Using fog lights in foggy conditions is recommended, but not a legal requirement

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By Marmalade Author

Providing tips and advice for young drivers on all aspects of driving - from getting through the driving test to buying and running your first car.

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