As clusters of LED replace the old incandescent bulbs around your car and self leveling xenon/LED headlamps become more common, the old practice of aiming your own beams and checking for blown bulbs will soon start to fade away. But most cars on the road today are still equipped with incandescent bulbs and reflector style headlamps. Which means some of us still have to check for blown bulbs and aim our own beams, unless you take it to the shop and let them charge you for something a lab monkey could probably do (most shops will do it for free if you take your car for service though). But, do it yourself? How tedious, right? That’s why a lot of people leave it as is and don’t really care that much.

But we are talking about one of the car’s most important active safety systems, which is almost as old as the car itself, for a reason. So it’s of great importance to keep it in good shape, and give it proper use. Here are some tips to make your driving experience, as well as other’s, safer. And no, it doesn’t involve a lab monkey:


Act I - First and foremost, check for blown bulbs.


Put your car’s ignition switch on the third position (ON), without starting the engine. Some cars have a small warning on the dashboard. It’s an orange bulb and it let’s you know one or more bulbs are blown, so check that first.

Put the car in reverse gear (this will turn your reverse lights on), turn all of your lights on, as well as the hazards. Now walk around the car and look for blown bulbs. Some cars won’t allow you to turn the fog lights while the high beams are on, so take another walk around the car, yhis time with the high beams off, and check if your fog lights work.

Pro tip: Some cars are equipped with rear fog lights, especially euro, so check those as well. They are usually found only in one of your tail lamps (the one that is on the driver’s side) but may also be found on both tail lamp clusters. It’s usually a 21W bulb, just like the ones found on your brake lights, so it’s equally bright.

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Also, if this is the case, your rear fog light may be housed where your reverse light would, which means you only have one reverse and one fog light. You don’t have a blown reverse bulb.


Act II - Aiming your headlamps.


The reason we aim headlamps is so we get an optimum light pattern in front of the car, aiming to light as far as possible, but without blinding oncoming traffic and drivers in front of you.

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Your aiming may be off if your vehicle is loaded with people and luggage, or if you are towing a trailer. As the rear of your car lowers, the beams aim higher.

To fix this, there are three ways. The first requires no input from you whatsoever, that is if your car is equipped with self leveling xenon/LED headlamps.

The second way to do this, is if your car is equipped with a knob on the dashboard that let’s you adjust the height of the beams.

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Last but not least, the classic way. Each headlamp will be equipped with a couple of screws behind it. You can aim to the sides and up or down. You will have to aim one at a time. The easiest way to do this, is parking in a flat surface, a good 20 meters/65 feet behind another car in the darkness. Aim your beams as to illuminate the rear bumper of the car.

The point here is to not blind drivers on their rear view mirrors. If your beams are illuminating the trunk of the other car directly, it’s probably too high. Just use some common sense (common sense is not so common, though) or ask a friend to get in the other car and check if your lights are blinding. Another good reference, is the light scattered by your fog lights. Try to make your low beams overlap a little with your fog lights. If your beams are aiming where your fog lights should, though, they are too low.

The last step is aiming the headlamp on the driver’s side just a little below the one on the passenger side. If you drive on the right, the left beam should be lower. If you drive on the left, the right beam should be lower.

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The reason behind this, and as always, there is one, is to not blind oncoming traffic, but keep the other headlamp aimed high so you illuminate the side of the road and road signs.


Act III - With great [light]power, comes great responsibility.


Learning to use your lights is crucial. So here are my tips:

  • If your car is equipped with DRL’s (day running lights), be sure to turn your lights on at night. It’s pretty obvious, but cars nowadays have dashboards that are always lit, giving you the impression that your lights are indeed on. I’ve seen this happen a lot, especially on Audis. It doesn’t help that you have DRL’s that, from the inside of the car, make it look like your lights are indeed turned on when driving on the city. These lights, also, are very bright at night, and scatter light everywhere (that’s their job, to make your car visible to other drivers with a bright scattered light during the day) which can blind other people. Last but not least, your front DRL’s will be on, but your rear lights will be completely off.
  • Always keep spare bulbs. Don’t keep spares of every single bulb, but al least of your front low beams and rear position lights. My dad’s Ford Edge would go through rear left position lights like crazy, and my Volvo S60 blows the rear side markers on almost a monthly basis. So, know your car and keep spares. If your car is equipped with xenons like mine, you don’t need to keep a fragile $150 bulb on your glove box. Those last almost 10 year anyway, unless something is wrong with your ballast.
  • Your car has fog lights. That’s great. Save them for foggy days. I’ve seen people using front fog lights in every light condition. Fog lights can be very bright and blind oncoming traffic. Now, the worst are rear fog lights. People use them deliberately because they think they look cool. Rear fog lights are to the traffic behind you just as annoying as high beams to drivers in front of you. Never use rear fog lights unless you encounter heavy, thick fog. Not in the rain, not in the city. Use them only when you can’t see the car in front of you. That will mean that the car behind you can’t see you either. If your car comes equipped with two fog lights, consider removing the one on the passenger side, so they are not confused with brake lights and actually give the car on the rear a perception of depth.
  • There’s an exception to the use of fog lights. If you forgot point two, and don’t have a spare bulb for your rear position light or your low beam, then turn your fog lights on. Is better to blind another driver, than make them think your car is a motorcycle.
  • Never use xenon lights on cars equipped with halogen lamps. Even if it has projectors. It doesn’t look cool, yo. Some older cars will have xenon installed from the factory on reflector headlamps. That’s OK, they are usually equipped with self leveling reflectors and they are designed for xenon. Xenon belongs to cars equipped with xenon from the factory. It will blind oncoming traffic more often than not, and the light actually has an inferior performance than a proper halogen setup.
  • Check your self leveling system and headlamps washers. If your car has headlamp wipers, check if they are in good condition. Keep fluid on the water reservoir. Xenon headlamps can get very hot if the lens is dirty.

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Now, if you made it all the way here, here’s a treat for you. A silent film from Felix the Cat. Yes, there used to be Mazda bulbs, but they are not related to the car manufacturer.

The actual movie name is The Cat and the Kit, not A Cat and a Kit.

Enjoy!

Your friendly neighborhood,

Ricardo Landgrave