Rules of the Road

Rules of the Road: Are those blinding headlights legal?

Question: I have questions about the legality, use/misuse and enforcement of laws regulating the use of HID and other ultra-bright or misaligned headlights on public streets. Far too often, I am literally blinded by oncoming vehicles using such headlights or seriously hindered by vehicles following me with searchlight-bright lights glaring in our rearview mirrors. This is especially problematic when the vehicles are trucks or large SUVs with high-mounted headlights.

Aren’t such headlights banned from public streets? Why is there seemingly no enforcement of these laws? Almost as bad are the numerous headlights that are terribly misaligned so that they shine directly into oncoming driver’s eyes. I remember years back when annual inspections required a headlight alignment check, for very good safety reasons. Whatever happened to end those requirements? And, in lieu of annual inspections, can police cite vehicles with misalignment problems?

Finally, what liability do drivers incur who use HID or other ultra-bright headlights that cause accidents?

Answer: Your question raises a number of issues covered by a variety of laws. The following RCWs cover some of the issues you raise. They are not quoted completely due to length.

The minimum height from the ground for headlights is 2 feet; the maximum is 4 ½ feet. There are minimum and maximum distances they are allowed to shine as well. They are never supposed to shine into another driver’s eyes. There are a maximum number of lights that are allowed to be illuminated at any one time. All lights offered for sale in the state are supposed to meet standards set by the Washington State Patrol.

I don’t recall Washington ever having a mandatory annual inspection for vehicles, except for a few counties that had to have emissions checks to get license tabs. Never having lived in those counties during that period, I don’t know if the light check would have been part of that or not.

Police could issue either warning notices or traffic infractions for violations of any of the RCWs. The minimum and maximum height of head lamps and the number of illuminated front lights are probably the only RCWs that might be enforced.

For the liability question, that is best taken up with an attorney. If the headlights are shown to be of an illegal type, or are somehow the cause of the crash, there may be some liability issues.

Here are excerpts of the relevant laws:

RCW 46.37.040 Head lamps on motor vehicles.

(1) Every motor vehicle shall be equipped with at least two head lamps with at least one on each side of the front of the motor vehicle, which head lamps shall comply with the requirements and limitations set forth in this chapter.

(2) Every head lamp upon every motor vehicle shall be located at a height measured from the center of the head lamp of not more than 54 inches nor less than 24 inches to be measured as set forth in RCW 46.37.030(2).

RCW 46.37.220 Multiple-beam road-lighting equipment.

Except as hereinafter provided, the head lamps or the auxiliary driving lamp or the auxiliary passing lamp or combination thereof on motor vehicles shall be so arranged that the driver may select at will between distributions of light projected to different elevations, and such lamps may be so arranged that such selection can be made automatically subject to the following limitations:

(1) There shall be an uppermost distribution of light, or composite beam, so aimed and of such intensity as to reveal persons and vehicles at a distance of 450 feet ahead for all conditions of loading;

(2) There shall be a lowermost distribution of light, or composite beam, so aimed and of sufficient intensity to reveal persons and vehicles at a distance of 150 feet ahead; and on a straight level road under any conditions of loading none of the high intensity portion of the beam shall be directed to strike the eyes of an approaching driver.

RCW 46.37.270 Number of lamps required — Number of additional lamps permitted.

(1) At all times specified in RCW 46.37.020, at least two lighted lamps shall be displayed, one on each side at the front of every motor vehicle, except when such vehicle is parked subject to the regulations governing lights on parked vehicles.

(2) Whenever a motor vehicle equipped with head lamps as herein required is also equipped with any auxiliary lamps or a spot lamp or any other lamp on the front thereof projecting a beam of intensity greater than 300 candlepower, not more than a total of two of any such additional lamps on the front of a vehicle shall be lighted at any one time when upon a highway.

RCW 46.37.320 Authority of state patrol regarding lighting devices or other safety equipment.

This section covers the authority of WSP in regulating headlights and other safety equipment on vehicles.