We all know that if you drive around with a broken tail light, you run the risk of being given a fine or a “fix-it” ticket. But you can also get fined for having lights that are too bright for paved roads. In fact, many off-road lights aren’t street legal.
If you’re driving around with off-road lights on, not only are you risking a ticket, you may also be putting yourself in danger. The same lights that make it possible for you to drive off-road can be dangerous when they’re shining in the face of an oncoming driver.
In this post, we’ll take a look at everything you need to know about street legal lighting so you can decide which lights to use and when to use them.
Street legal vs. Off-road lights
First, what’s the difference between driving lights and off-road lights, and why does it matter? Basically, it all comes down to the lighting pattern.
Standard headlamps come in low beam and high beam patterns. A low beam pattern is narrow enough that it won’t distract drivers in the oncoming lane.
A high beam pattern is wider and longer and allows you to see further, but it shouldn’t be used when there are other vehicles on the road.
You can also attach auxiliary lights to your vehicle, and this is where understanding the differences between each type of light comes in. Some auxiliary lights are street legal, while others are only intended for off-road use.
Driving lights, also known as “auxiliary high-beam lamps,” are designed for long-range visibility when driving at high speeds, such as on dark, empty highways at night. Like other high beams, they should be turned off when oncoming traffic is present.
Fog lights can be used either on or off-road, but only in low visibility conditions. They have a short, wide beam, ideal for illuminating what’s right in front of you. Since they can distract oncoming drivers, only use them when you really need to; some regions have penalties for using them in the absence of fog.
Then, there are off-road flood lights and spot lights. Whether you’re driving down a fire road at dusk, or down a narrow dirt road in the dark, these kinds of lights can help you avoid rocks, bumps, wildlife, and other hazards.
Flood lights provide a high-intensity beam that covers a large area right in front of you, but doesn’t reach very far ahead. Spot lights are long and narrow, like a flashlight, and are helpful for seeing what’s ahead of you in the distance, but not to either side.
You can use multi-beam lights to get a combination of both lighting patterns and have the most visibility possible. However, these are only designed for off-road use, so they may need to be turned off and covered up if you’re driving on public roads.
Let’s take a closer look at your options for installing street legal driving lights.
Types of street-legal driving lights
If you’re looking for street-legal driving lights that you can use both on and off-road, you have several options to choose from. Choosing street-legal lights allows you to switch between off-road and on-road use without having to worry about running afoul of the law. Here are a few of the most popular street-legal options:
LED fog lights
Fog lights are nearly always street legal, as long as you use them in line with local laws. That’s because they’re usually mounted at an angle on the front of the vehicle, beneath the headlamps, where they’re less likely to distract other cars on the road.
Although halogen bulbs have been the primary form of vehicle lighting for years, LED lights are becoming more and more popular. They cost more than halogen bulbs, but they also last longer, for several years rather than for 18 to 24 months.
Also, LED lights are incredibly versatile, and come in a variety of sleek, modern-looking designs that can be customized to fit your vehicle. LED lights are known for their bright, white lighting temperature, which is more pleasant to the eyes than halogen lighting.
HID driving lights
Another recent addition to vehicle lighting technology is HID, or high intensity discharge, lamps. First produced in the 1990s, these lights use an electric arc instead of a filament, so they don’t need to be as large as halogen lamps to provide the same output.
However, there’s some confusion over the legality of HID driving lights. In short, they’re only legal if they came built into the car, or if the entire headlight unit has been refitted. Using an aftermarket conversion kit won’t make them street legal.
Also, some states have regulations on the color of the light that the HID bulbs emit; for example, in California, HID headlights must be white or yellow, not blue.
Other LED lights
There are other kinds of LED lights that may or may not be street legal, depending on your state and on how the lights are installed. While roof-mounted light bars are great for off-roading, they’ll need to be covered up if you’re driving on public roads.
Many states only allow two auxiliary driving lamps per vehicle, and since each LED light is counted individually, that means light bars are out. While some manufacturers market their light bars as being SAE or DOT compliant, this doesn’t mean they’re legal. When in doubt, simply carry around a cover to cover up your light bars on public roads.
How to check if your driving lights are street legal:
All of these rules may sound complicated, so let’s dive a little deeper into understanding local laws and what it means to be DOT or SAE compliant.
First, what is the SAE? The Society of Automotive Engineers is an industry organization that creates standards for cars, trucks, airplanes, and other vehicle parts.
These are voluntary standards, not legal requirements, so having an SAE sticker on a product doesn’t mean that it’s been tested or approved by a regulatory body.
The DOT, or Department of Transportation, is the government agency that actually sets the laws and determines if a particular product is street legal.
So while any company can claim that their product is “SAE complaint,” you can’t use it on public roads unless it’s labeled “DOT approved.”
To make things even more confusing, regulations on auxiliary lighting vary from state to state. While federal regulations supersede state laws, not all items are evaluated by the DOT, so some lights, such as fog lights, are regulated by state law.
Before you install your auxiliary lights, research the local laws for the state that you live in and any other states that you plan to drive in.
FindLaw has a list of the motor vehicle codes for every state, such as this excerpt of the relevant regulations in Florida:
“Any motor vehicle may be equipped with not to exceed two auxiliary driving lamps mounted on the front at a height not less than 16 inches nor more than 42 inches above the level surface upon which the vehicle stands.”
If you have more questions, call up your local regulatory agency or ask your mechanic or a trusted retailer for advice before you buy.
How to install street legal driving lights
Once you’ve chosen your driving lights, you’ll need to install them. Depending on the complexity of your kit, you may be able to get them up and running a single day. The main steps are to mount them, install the switches, and connect the wiring.
1. Mount the lights.
There are three main types of mounts for fog lights: rack mount, grill mount, and bumper mount. These mounts are easiest to install because they attach to an existing grill or brush guard on your vehicle.
If you’re installing your lights on the roof of your vehicle, this will take some additional work, since you’ll need to drill one or more holes in the roof.
2. Mount the relay.
Once you’ve decided where to mount your lights, you’ll need to mount the relay. This is basically a switch that controls the current. This should go in the engine bay, close to the battery, but away from hot spots.
Ground the relay by running a wire to an external bolt on your vehicle. Make sure there’s no paint or rust on the grounding point before you attach it.
3. Install the switch.
The switch that controls the light needs to be installed in the dashboard, close enough to the wheel that you can access it while driving.
If you don’t have a compartment built-in to the vehicle, then you’ll have to drill a hole through your dashboard in order to feed the wire through. The switch also needs to be grounded separately from the relay.
4. Connect the wiring.
Now that all of the components are installed, it’s time to complete the wiring process. We’ve simplified things a bit for the sake of this post, so be sure to follow the instructions that come with your lighting kit.
The precise layout of your wiring will depend on the type of lights you’ve installed and where they’re mounted on your vehicle. Once you’ve finished the wiring, tuck any loose wires into your vehicle panels or dashboard to keep it secure.
5. Test and adjust the lights.Finally, it’s time to turn on the lights and make sure that all of the components are working properly. Take your car for a test drive to check if the lights are positioned properly.
If you need to, you can adjust the direction of the beams, and tighten all of the bolts to make sure they stay in place on bumpy roads.
Installing your lights yourself may take some effort, but the end result will be a unique configuration that meets your personal preferences and the rules of the road.