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Throwing Some Light On The Subject Of Lights

Once upon a time, cars were fitted with carbide lights, practically identical to the sort old-school miners wore on their helmets.  These had to be lit with a match, a cigarette lighter or, if you were lucky, a built in flint and steel striking mechanism.  They weren’t in the business long, as electric lights were put on cars in around 1912 or so.  We’ve certainly come a long way since then and we’ve got more than a pair of carbide lanterns.  If you’ve thought about adding some aftermarket tweaks to your vehicle, lights are some of the first things that we can try adjusting or adding.  However, it pays to know what you’re talking about, so let’s look at what’s what.


These are your bread and butter basics.  They are there to stop you running into things at night and see where the road goes.  They probably don’t need any introduction, but we’ll touch on them briefly.  They are at the front and they’re white.  The idea is that they illuminate as far as possible when on full beam and are dipped when another vehicle comes the other way.  We know how they work.  However, please remember the following: (1) you turn them on when there’s not enough light to see a person in dark clothing 100 m away, i.e., when the sun is below the horizon; (2) don’t play Headlight Chicken where you see who dips first.

Auxiliary Lights

Auxiliary lights are the ones that aren’t the bog-standard headlights, indicators and taillights.  Not all cars have them when they roll off the factory floor, but many of them can be fitted as after-market mods.  They’re particularly popular on off-roading vehicles, and for good reason.  If you’re going out into the middle of nowhere, you really need to see all the rocks, holes and wandering animals, so more lights are needed (doubly so if you go spotlighting for rabbits).

Let’s have a look at the different sorts and what they’re for.

Fog Lights

Fog lights are for moments when something’s blurring visibility rather than for when it’s dark.  Fog lights tend to keep the beam of light low so that it lights up the road but doesn’t hit the fog or dust and make the problem worse.  If the light hits the dust or fog, then it will be scattered and make visibility worse.

Fog lights can be either amber or white.  They have to turn off and on separately from the headlights.  You’re not supposed to use them at night time as auxiliary lights, and you’re not supposed to use them at all unless the conditions warrant it.  

Daytime Running Lights

Daytime running lights, commonly abbreviated DRLs, are lights fitted to the front of a vehicle that aren’t there so the driver can see but so that they can be seen. They’re supposed to be wired so that they go off when the headlights go on (unless you’re flashing your headlights temporarily to alert another driver about something, like the fact that their boot is open). 

In some places, DRLs are required by law on all new vehicles.  I’m not sure whether I agree with this or not. Certainly, out on the open road on an overcast day, DRLs have alerted me to a grey car on a grey road under a grey sky that would otherwise be hard to pick. However, around town, when every vehicle has DRLs and everything around them seems to have lights or at least be reflective, DRLs fall victim to the “if everyone’s special, then nobody’s special” syndrome and they don’t act as a warning of the presence of another vehicle more than the big metal box on wheels they’re mounted on.

Additional Driving Lights

Additional driving lights are like your headlights but they’re in addition to your headlights.  Instead of having two headlights (or, in quite a few cases, four), you can have four (or six).  Because they’re not as sophisticated as your main headlights, they only come on when the headlights are on high beam and should go off when you dip the headlights.  This is for the simple reason that these auxiliary lights can’t dip, so if they stayed on, they’d dazzle the oncoming driver.  They are sometimes called spotlights or spots. 

The exact laws about where you can install additional driving lights vary slightly from state to state and they seem to be updated all the time. The general idea is that you are supposed to install them symmetrically about the centre of the vehicle’s bumper and that you can’t put them somewhere that could be dangerous, either because they protrude like horns or because they block the driver’s vision or dazzle the driver.  In general, if you put lights on the front of your 4×4 so that they are surrounded by the bull bars rather than sticking out from them in front or on the side, you’re all good. 

Light bars are a subcategory of additional driving light. Light bars are made up of a strip of LED lights, all acting in tandem.  Legally, they are considered to be one light if they all turn on and off at the same time; if different bits turn on and off at different times, each bit of the light bar is considered to be a separate light.  As lights must be mounted symmetrically around the front of the car, you can have a single light bar in the front and centre of your vehicle.

The ultimate in auxiliary lights or spotlights is the roof-mounted rack of lights that you’ll see on some 4x4s and are popular with hunters going out after dark.  These are not legal in all states of Australia under all circumstances, with some states allowing them for use by hunting or when the vehicle is stationary or when the vehicle is off-road.  These rules also seem to be updated every time you turn around, so check what applies to you before going to the effort and expense of buying or fitting them.

Puddle lights

The sole purpose of a puddle light is to cast a patch of light on the ground beside the door – very useful if you don’t want to put your best shoes into a puddle or a pile of dog poo. Some of the cars that have them as standard have a clever design so as well as throwing a patch of light onto the ground, it can also throw down a logo as a shadow – or even a patch of light thanks to LED tech. Aftermarket puddle lights are also out there, some of which have some quite quirky styles.