samotor Magazine

Headlights: need to know tips



They might seem like a pretty basic car feature, but from those strange new bluish ones to the direction they need to be pointed, there’s a surprising amount to know about the humble headlight.

Part 1: What are those bright, bluish lights and are they legal?
Part 2: When to use them and how to know which lights are on.
Part 3: The direction of your headlights.
Part 4: Light maintenance.
Part 5: The future of lights


1. What are those bright, bluish lights and are they legal?

We’ve all seen them – those dazzling bright-white headlights with the bluish tinge. So what are they, and are they legal?

These contentious features are High Intensity Discharge lights – also known as HIDs or xenons.

They’re a relatively new kid on the block and, initially, were only fitted to luxury cars. But in recent years, they’ve become more widespread – and so have the concerns about their brightness… not surprising, given they’re up to three times brighter than traditional headlights.

They are legal when fitted correctly, but are subject to strict regulations.

First up, they must have a self-levelling mechanism to keep them pointed down towards the road, so if the rear of a car is weighed down by a caravan – or a dozen Christmas hams – the level of the lights will adjust accordingly.

They must also be fitted with washers to clean off any grime, as this causes the beams of light to scatter into the eyes of oncoming motorists.

When fitted by car manufacturers, these lights shouldn’t cause too many issues.



The annoying glare generally comes when people buy aftermarket kits, which usually aren’t self-levelling, don’t have washers and aren’t road legal.

Get caught using these lights illegally and you could be hit with a fine.

RAA’s advice? For driving around town, there’s really no need to change the headlights fitted by the manufacturer.

If you’re keen to light up the night during country or outback drives, it’s best to fit dedicated driving lights to the front of the vehicle (more on these later)

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2. When to use them and how to know which lights are on

Modern cars are festooned with so many different lights that it’s hard to know when to use them – and even which ones you’ve actually turned on.

We take a look at the different types and what symbols to look for on your dash.

Daytime running lights

Daytime running lights

DRLs are very common on new vehicles and, as the name suggests, they’re designed to make a car more visible (and therefore safer) when the sun’s up.

They automatically light up when the engine starts, but are illegal to use at night and must be wired so they turn off when the headlights are activated. Don’t confuse them with fog lights, which are quite different.

Fog lights

Fog lights

If your car has them, they should be used in hazardous conditions like fog, dust or heavy rain, as they have a low wide beam that’s handy during poor visibility.

Don’t forget to switch them off when the weather clears up, as they can dazzle other drivers.

As we mentioned in the last edition of samotor, more than 1800 drivers have been fined for misusing fog lights in the past year. The penalty? A $233 fine, $60 Victims of Crime Levy and one demerit point.

Some drivers get confused and use these instead of DRLs. 

Standard headlight

Standard headlights

Also called low beams or dipped headlights, these should obviously be used to illuminate the road ahead at night.

Also switch them on when driving on country roads during the day and – if your car doesn’t have fog lights – flick them on during bad weather. 

Driving lights and led bars


High beams

Don’t use these within 200m of another vehicle, whether you’re approaching from the front or behind, as you’ll blind the other driver and could face a $233 fine, a $60 Victims of Crime Levy and one demerit point.

It’s also a good idea to turn them off when going over a hill, as you won’t be able to see oncoming cars. But, did you know you can flick them on and off briefly to show that you’re about to overtake the vehicle ahead?

Driving lights and led bars


Driving lights and LED bars

These are extra, aftermarket lights that you can install on the front of your car and are generally used by motorists who do a lot of country or outback driving.

They must be wired so they only light up when the high beams are on (so the high beam symbol on your dash will illuminate) and you should get advice to make sure you install them correctly. 

NOTE: The symbols on your dash are mostly universal, but check your car’s owner’s manual to be sure.

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3. The direction of your headlights

Did you know you should check the alignment of your headlights every few years to make sure they’re aiming down at the road… not pointing up into trees spotting koalas or into the eyes of oncoming drivers?

In a nutshell, headlights can slip out of position over time, which can not only cause significant glare for others on the road, but could get your car defected. 

RAA’s been checking and adjusting headlights for members since 1927, and you can book your car in for free by calling RAA Vehicle Inspections on 8202 4688.

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4. Light maintenance

Driving with a faulty light – whether it’s a headlight, taillight, indicator or brake-light – could cost you a $233 fine, $60 Victims of Crime Levy, and one demerit point. Your car might also be defected.

You should regularly check that all the lights on your car are working – you can do this by pulling up to a window and looking in the reflection.

Most bulbs can be easily changed with just a screwdriver, but refer to your owner’s manual for instructions.

If you can’t get home because a light’s gone out and you have RAA Road Service, one of our patrols may be able to come and replace it for you. We can change most types of external car lights, but there are certain ones that – by design – must be done at a workshop or by the dealer.

Also, did you know plastic headlights degrade overtime? Watch the video below for our step-by-step guide on how to make them shine like new.  

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5. The future of lights

Surely car makers can’t do much else to revolutionise something as mundane as the humble headlight, right?

Think again. There’s some pretty nifty technology out there, such as automatic high beams that detect the amount of radiance coming from street lamps or other cars, then trigger or deactivate the high beams as needed.

There’s ‘cornering’ or ‘adaptive’ lights that actually shine around bends (pictured below). These basically rotate with the car as you turn the steering wheel, illuminating the part of the road you actually need to see.



Meanwhile, it might sound a bit James Bond-like, but lasers are the latest type of lights being installed on cars. It’s claimed they have double the range of a normal headlight and are far more efficient, meaning less energy is used.

Many of these features are already available on higher-end vehicles and will make their way down to the mainstream market over the next few years. Let’s just say the future of car lights is looking pretty bright (pardon the pun, we couldn’t help ourselves)!

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Have a motoring question?

Members can call our free Technical Advisory Service on 8202 4689 or enquire online.