Rules of the road: Self-expression vs. “selfish expression” for car lighting

By Doug Dahl

Question: What is the protocol for applying aftermarket lights installed on cars and trucks? Where I live, there are many vehicles that have replaced the standard headlights with bulbs that blind oncoming traffic in a flash. In European countries these cars would never last a day on the roads as they take vehicle safety more seriously.

Answer: Many of us in the US have a deep-seated desire to use our cars as a form of self-expression. I remember watching an episode of a British car enthusiast show where the host (and this guy is obsessed with cars) was genuinely confused about the US’s propensity for over-modification of cars.

It’s my own fault. Eighteen-year-old me drove a 1963 Chevy Nova SS with a borderline ridiculous paint job and extra-wide rear fenders to fit the beefy tires on my custom-painted five-spoke Cragar wheels. Why would you paint your Cragars? I thought it was great and I regret selling this car.

Self-expression is part of car culture, and I’d say American culture. It’s not just the hardcore 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 cut it like a Louis Vuitton bag (Britney Spears), or build a dragster with four engines (Tommy Ivo). Side note: All three of these people are former Mouseketeers.

The problem arises when self-expression becomes selfish expression. There is a reason we have laws about vehicle equipment. Some of the modifications that people want to make can harm other road users. Your super bright headlights may make your car look cool in photos, but if you’re blinding oncoming drivers, you’ve gone from self-expression to rudeness and danger.

The same goes for tires that stick out past your fenders. It’s a non-verbal way of telling other drivers that you don’t care what happens to their windshield, and more seriously, of telling pedestrians that you don’t care about throwing a rock at their head. I did a little experiment and Googled “Pickup tire size is inversely proportional to…” just to see what the autocomplete would come up with and it answered “Intelligence”. You thought I was going somewhere else with this, didn’t you?

Going back to headlight modifications, there isn’t much about your headlights that you can legally modify. Basically, if one bulb burns out, you can buy another exactly like it. Conversion from halogen to HID or LED bulbs is not permitted. Yes, you can purchase a conversion kit for your vehicle. No, that doesn’t mean it’s street legal.

However, implementation can be difficult. I’m oversimplifying here, but vehicle lighting laws are written at the federal level and passed by the states. If you’ve ever tried to read the Code of Federal Regulations regarding vehicle lighting, you know it’s long and confusing. It’s the same length as Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but unlike Hemingway, it won no Pulitzers. Also, knowing the law does not make you an expert in lighting technology. Even so, officers do not have a headlight testing kit in the trunk of their car.

What I mean is that traditional enforcement alone will not solve this problem. A more practical approach may be annual vehicle safety inspections, which some states and many other states 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 nice, you could do worse than practicing it while driving.

Doug Dahl is the Washington Traffic Safety Commission Region 11 manager and publishes

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