It’s Saturday night, and you’re leaving a restaurant in Fresno, California. You start up your car, pull out of the parking lot, and onto the road, but because the parking lot and street are well-lit, you forget to turn on your headlights. Before you can switch your headlights on, a truck pulls in front of you, and you crash into the side of the truck.
Let’s take a look at when you should turn on your headlights in California and how violating California’s headlight laws may affect liability in a California car accident case.
California headlight laws
Under California Vehicle Code Section 24400, motor vehicle drivers are required to turn their headlights on:
- In the dark, and/or
- In inclement weather
The statute defines inclement weather as “a weather condition that... prevents a driver of a motor vehicle from clearly discerning a person or another motor vehicle from a distance of 1,000 feet or a condition requiring the windshield wipers to be in use due to rain, mist, snow, fog, or other precipitation or atmospheric moisture.”
There’s nothing wrong with turning on your headlights when it’s not required. In fact, a number of studies have shown that daytime running lights (typically low-wattage headlights that turn on automatically when a vehicle’s ignition is started) reduce the number of daytime car accidents, especially head-on and front-corner collisions.
In California, there are certain stretches of road on which daytime headlights are required. One such stretch of road, a 39-mile stretch along Highway 99 in Butte and Tehama County, has experienced a dramatic reduction in the number of crashes since daytime headlights were first required in 2012.
Are high-intensity headlights legal in California?
High-intensity lights (HID headlights) have become more popular in recent years due in large part to their ability to produce more natural light. Unfortunately, HID lights can be blinding to oncoming vehicles.
HID headlights are legal in California so long as they’re white and not above the typical brightness level. If you purchase a vehicle with HID lights installed, they’re most likely legal. On the other hand, if you modify your vehicle with aftermarket HID headlights, there’s a good possibility they’re illegal.
Is it legal to use your high beams in California?
When you turn on your headlights, you turn on the low beams. If you want your headlights to be more intense and reach a greater distance, you can turn on your high beams (sometimes called “brights”).
It’s common courtesy to switch off your high beams when you’re approaching another vehicle. This is because your high beams can temporarily blind other drivers on the road. In California, turning off your high beams when you approach another vehicle isn’t just common courtesy; it’s the law.
California Vehicle Code 24409 requires drivers to turn off their high beams (and turn on their low beams) in the following situations:
- When approaching an oncoming vehicle that’s less than 500 feet away
- When following another vehicle that’s less than 300 feet away
Are fog lights legal in California?
Fog lights are an extra set of lights that are mounted lower than headlights and angled downward to illuminate the ground below the fog.
In California, fog lights are legal so long as they are mounted on the front of the vehicle at the height of between 12 and 30 inches. A car cannot be equipped with more than two fog lights, and the fog lights cannot be used as a substitute for headlamps.
Penalties for violating California’s headlight statutes
In addition to your safety, you may be putting your driving record at risk when you drive without your headlights on in California.
A driver who violates California Vehicle Code Section 24400 (failure to operate headlights as required) or most other headlight statutes faces the following penalties:
- A fine of at least $238
- One point on your driver’s license record
What’s more, your insurance premiums might go up as a result of either violation.
How do headlight violations impact a personal injury claim?
Motor vehicle accident lawsuits are generally based on the legal concept of negligence.
In California, negligence is defined as “the failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent harm to someone else on the road.” If the plaintiff can prove that the defendant failed to turn on their headlights in inclement weather (or violated some other headlight statute) when the accident occurred, they can generally establish negligence.
What’s more, if the defendant received a citation for violating one of California’s headlight laws, the defendant will be presumed negligent, and the defendant will have the burden of proving that they didn’t cause the accident. This is referred to as “negligence per se.”
Keep in mind that not all cases are one-sided. California adopted a pure comparative fault system that applies when both parties are partially at fault for an accident. Under the comparative fault system, a plaintiff’s damages will be reduced by their percentage of fault.