Headlights save lives! The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that nearly 50 percent of all traffic-related fatalities occur in dark conditions — even though only 25 percent of vehicles travel during those periods. Knowing when to use your headlights can be the difference between arriving safely at your destination, or getting into a crash.
California headlight laws dictate which times you’re required to use headlights. But what about all the different types of vehicle lights that are available now? Read on for everything you need to know about headlights in California.
Dangers of Driving when Visibility is Reduced
California is known for its long, sunny days. But the sun isn’t always shining, so it’s important to know about the dangers of driving at night, in inclement weather, and other times when visibility may be reduced.
Dangers of Driving at Night
According to the National Safety Council, driving at night poses some specific dangers for motorists:
- Reduced visibility. It is harder to see other vehicles, pedestrians, road signs, and obstacles in the dark.
- Fatigue. Driving for long periods, especially at night, can lead to drowsiness and decreased alertness.
- Glare. Streetlights and other sources of bright light can cause temporary blindness and impair vision.
- Drunk driving. Rates of alcohol-impaired driving are higher at night.
- Reduced reaction time. The darker environment at night can make it more difficult to react to sudden stops, turns, or other hazards.
While proper use of headlights can help alleviate some of these dangers (like by making it easier for drivers to see ahead of them in the dark), they can also lead to more hazards:
- Glare. Bright headlights can blind other drivers, especially on winding roads or when cresting a hill.
- Misjudging distances. Headlights can create the illusion of greater distance between vehicles, leading to misjudgments and potential collisions.
- Distracted driving. Adjusting or cleaning headlights can distract drivers and take their focus away from the road.
Dangers of Driving in Inclement Weather
Similar to when it’s dark at night, inclement weather can create hazards because it reduces drivers’ visibility.
When it’s raining or snowing, roadways can become slippery at the same time that drivers’ visibility is reduced. This combination of hazards can make it extremely dangerous to drive in inclement weather.
While headlights can help make your vehicle more visible to other drivers in bad weather, they may impact your visibility even further — certain types of headlights, such as high beams, can reflect off of fog, rain, or snow, creating glare and making it harder for you to see the road ahead of you.
California’s Headlight Law
To help keep drivers safe, California law dictates when drivers must use their headlights, and the DMV offers additional recommendations for times when headlights aren’t required, but might keep drivers safer on the road.
Under California Vehicle Code Section 24400, drivers are required to have working headlights mounted on their vehicle between 22 and 54 inches from the ground, and must use their headlights when:
- It’s dark
- Inclement weather reduces visibility
The law defines “inclement weather” as “a weather condition that… prevents a driver of a motor vehicle from clearly discerning a person or another motor vehicle from a distance of 1,000 feet or a condition requiring the windshield wipers to be in use due to rain, mist, snow, fog, or other precipitation or atmospheric moisture.”
There are also certain roads in California (like a 39-mile stretch of Highway 99 in Butte and Tehama counties) where headlights are required at all times, even during the day. Keep an eye out for road signs that tell you if headlights are required outside of the times specified by state law.
In other words, headlights are required:
- Between sunset and sunrise, always
- When it’s cloudy, raining, snowy, or foggy. A good rule of thumb is that if you need to use your windshield wipers, you should have your headlights on.
- On frosty mornings when other drivers may have foggy or frosted over windows
- Any time conditions (clouds, rain, snow, dust, smoke, fog, etc.) prevent you from seeing other vehicles more than 1,000 feet away, or prevent other drivers from seeing your vehicle
- When signs posted on the highway state that headlights are required
- When you need to get another driver’s attention in an emergency.
However, there’s nothing wrong with using your headlights when they aren’t required. A number of studies have shown that using your headlights during the day reduces your likelihood of getting into a daytime collision.
Are High Beams Allowed in California?
Your normal headlights are called “low beams.” Most vehicles have an option to switch on brighter and more intense lights called “high beams” or “brights.”
These are legal to use in California, but only under certain circumstances. When other vehicles are around, the intensity of high beams can make it more difficult for their drivers to see, creating new hazards. Drivers are required to switch from high beams to low beams when:
- Approaching another vehicle that’s less than 500 feet away
- Following another vehicle that’s less than 300 feet away
Can You Use Fog Lights in California?
In fog, low beam and high beam headlights can make it harder to see ahead of your vehicle, because the position and brightness of those lights causes them to reflect off the moisture in the air.
Fog lights are special lights that are positioned to cut through fog, helping drivers see.
In California, fog lights are legal if they are mounted to the front of the vehicle, between 12 and 30 inches from the ground. One vehicle can have no more than two fog lights, and they cannot be used as a substitute for headlights. Drivers can use fog lights only in fog — when it’s clear, the brightness of fog lights can be a hazard for other drivers.
Are HID and Aftermarket Headlights Legal in California?
Aftermarket headlights are allowed in California sometimes.
Colored headlights that use blue, green, red, or other colored bulbs, are never allowed in California or any other state. Note that some legal headlights appear blue at times; these are illegal only if the bulb is colored.
HID headlights are high-intensity lights that are becoming more common on luxury and newer-model cars. These lights are legal as long as they’re white and not above a standard brightness level set by the Department of Transportation. If you purchase a vehicle with HID lights already installed, they’re likely legal to use in California. If you have aftermarket HID lights installed, they may not be. Look for lights that are approved by the DOT to ensure your aftermarket headlights aren’t creating hazards for other drivers.
Can You Drive with Broken Headlights?
No. California law requires headlights to be intact and functional at all times, even when the use of headlights is not required. Also, consider restoring your headlights to bring back their light efficiency.
Can You Get a Ticket for Violating California’s Headlight Law?
Yes. Violating California’s headlight law is considered a moving violation, and you can get a ticket for it.
Consequences for Driving Without Headlights
When you drive without headlights when they’re needed, or use headlights improperly, you put yourself and other drivers at risk.
Additionally, you risk negative effects on your driving record. Violating California’s headlight law is an infraction that carries a minimum fine of $238, plus administrative and court fees. In addition to the fine, this type of infraction adds one point to your license. Having a point can cause your insurance premiums to increase, making the true cost of a headlight law violation hundreds, if not thousands of dollars over time.
If you want to avoid costly insurance increases after getting a headlight ticket (or any one-point infraction), you may want to consider traffic school. If the court approves it, you can attend a fast, convenient, affordable online class like Best Online Traffic School. Our course can be completed from the comfort of your own home, on your own device, and you only pay once you pass.
Ready to try traffic school for yourself? Start today, for free.