Rearview Mirror: Shedding Some Light on an Important Matter

I’ve been teaching my 15-year-old daughter how to drive this summer, and one of the “talks” we recently had was regarding the use of lights when driving. We talked about appropriate use of the various lights on the car, and how they actually serve two purposes: to help us see, and to help us be seen. Of course, I probably should not have told her that if no one is around to see your turn signal, then you probably don’t really need to use it. But I did, and now I just hope she doesn’t repeat that tidbit on her driving exam.

I have always been a bit of a lighting geek. On just about every car that I’ve owned, lighting upgrades have typically been the first modifications (and sometimes the only ones) that I carry out. In the past, it was a simple matter of changing out the U.S.-spec sealed beam lamps for a set of Euro-spec H-4s. I’ve progressed to the point of converting halogen lamps to HID on my last new Golf.

It was during the conversations with my daughter that I actually contemplated the importance of lighting, not just from safety standpoint, but also from the standpoint of styling and personal expression. Here are some of the random thoughts on lighting that passed ever so briefly through my head.

The DOT’s definition of headlight output- Outdated, archaic, unsafe. Just switch your DOT-approved lamps for their Euro counterparts and you’ll agree.

European-spec headlights- Good. Very good. You’ll be amazed at all the things you never saw before.

Golf IV headlights- Sexy. In fact, they’re the primary reason I had to have a new Golf.

Golf IV headlights with darkened housings- Even sexier and more menacing. It’s too bad it took VW so long to use them.

HID headlights- Excellent technology, if still somewhat expensive. High-Intensity gas-Discharge headlights, in case you were unsure. The gas discharge is Xenon gas, so they’re sometimes called Xenon headlights. Or they’re simply known as “hids” to the kids. Anyone who has ever driven a car with proper HID lighting has no doubt been impressed with how naturally things appear in the soft glow of its bluish-white light. The safety benefit is that HID light is much closer in color temperature (if you took physics class you may remember this term) to natural sunlight that traditional halogen lights are, so our eyes adjust more quickly to changes in the scenery.

Though aftermarket conversions are available, the government has stepped in recently to prevent these from being sold. It seems not everyone likes HID lights. Obviously they’ve never driven behind them.

Daytime running lights- Good idea, if you own stock in Sylvania or GE. Since the advent of DRLs, I now see many more cars with burned out headlight bulbs. The concept is good, I just wish we had the option of using them or not. They make the most sense in crowded city settings, where it can be tough to discern quickly between a parked car and one that is being driven. But that’s why the Europeans created city lights.

City lights- Better idea than DRLs, and much simpler too. You just turn on your running lights when conditions warrant (crowded urban settings, etc) and instead using your headlights through a step-down relay to reduce their intensity and save bulb life, you simply turn on a 5-watt bulb in your headlight housing the that emits a soft but distinctive glow, alerting other drivers that you are indeed a moving vehicle. I’ve added them to my last four VWs (with European headlights, of course).

Factory foglights- Um, yeah. They would be better if: A- You could actually tell when they were on. B- You could use them independent of the headlights, as real foglights were intended.

Aftermarket foglights- That depends. If we’re talking about the unaimed, improperly mounted discount variety that spew light in every direction, then I would have to say bad. If we’re talking about a set with focused beam pattern, securely mounted to the car in a proper location, and aimed correctly, then I say good. But only if they are used to aid visibility in poor conditions (i.e., night time, fog, rain, etc.) Cruising in broad daylight does not count.

Aftermarket driving lights- Pretty much everything that applies to aftermarket foglights applies here too. In case you don’t know the difference, foglights throw a short, wide, low beam pattern to supplement your low beams; driving lights throw a long, narrow, and generally higher pattern down the road, much like your high beam headlights, but better and brighter (in theory).

Rear foglights- Great, if used correctly. The idea is for the rear of your car to be seen more clearly in low-visibility conditions like snow, rain, and fog. In most cases it is a single lamp, located on the left side of the car to identify that corner in case someone intends to pass you. The problem is, most people who have cars equipped with them (every newer Saab, Volvo, Audi, Mercedes) haven’t been instructed on their intended function. Or maybe they just don’t know the difference between the front and rear foglight switches? That can be very confusing, admittedly.

I’ve spent a lot of time in various Audis and VWs lately, including Touaregs and Phaetons. I’ve noticed an interesting difference in philosophy between the two brands. While every Audi model is equipped with a rear foglight standard, not a single VW does. Not only that, you can’t even get a VW with a rear foglight in this country – not even the $100K Phaeton. Odd.

The rear foglight thing seems very uniquely European, with one exception. The last of the Oldsmobile Auroras were equipped with dual rear foglights, something I find very annoying. Not only were they equipped with the offensive dual rear fogs, they apparently were on the same switch as the front foglights. Every Aurora I’ve ever seen with front foglights has its rear ones on as well. Following one is like being behind my 80-year-old grandfather who doesn’t realize he still has his left foot on the brake.

Side marker lights- Great idea, especially in highway traffic. It’s too bad it took so long to get them over here. The latest generation is integrated into the mirror housings for an even cleaner look too.

U.S.-spec corner marker lights- I suppose they serve a legitimate purpose, but unless they can be integrated into an existing light housing (like Audi does it) they sure do mess up the cleanliness of the styling. Just look at any American-market Mk II Golf or Jetta for proof.

Lighted washer nozzles- No comment. Those of you who have them already know how the rest of us feel. I’ll spare any further embarrassment.

Taillights with amber turn signals- One of the things I always loved about European cars was the fact that the rear turn signals were amber, not red. This makes perfect sense, since the front turn signals are required to be amber as well. Red turn signals in the rear can be confused with running lights or brake lights. I’m sure we’ve all been behind a Chevy van with one burned out bulb, and every time he puts on his turn signal and brakes, you’re not sure if he’s stopping or turning or both. For me, amber equals turn, red equals stop.

Smoked taillights- Although kind of an ‘80s look, they still lend a sense of “bad-ass-ness” to any car, visually indicating greater performance potential. VW has used darkened taillights since the Scirocco 16V to distinguish its high-performance models.

Smoked-at-home taillights- Generally, pretty bad idea. I’ve seen very few examples that actually turned out well. Usually the spray tint is either applied so heavily that light no longer passes through the lenses, the paint itself drips, or the finish looks dull and cloudy. It is next to impossible to achieve the look of smoked plastic from a rattle can. If you want smoked taillights, step away from the can and save your money for the genuine article. Unless of course you own a Fox, in which case I suggest you clean the lenses well with a degreasing solvent and apply thin coats of the spray tint, allowing proper drying time between coats to prevent drips. Do not over-darken!

Clear taillights- If clear headlight housings look good, why not clear taillight housings? Despite the fact that these are often referred to as “Euro-tails”, we all know where the trend really started. What looks good on a Lexus does not always work so well on a VW. But this is purely a question of personal taste, so I’ll leave that up to you.

Blue bulbs- Can we stop already with replacing every little bulb in our cars with blue-tinted alternatives. It all started with everyone trying to emulate the look of HID headlights, but then something went wrong and suddenly every light was pumping out blue-hued rays. Blue-white turn signals and running lights and reverse lights aren’t fooling anyone. Blinking amber tells me you’re turning; blinking blue/white tells me you senselessly wasted $20 that could have been better spent on something more functional.

So there you have them, some random thoughts on lighting from a self-confessed lighting geek. How you use your lights is up to you. Just do me a favor and look at your instrument panel once in a while; if you see that little blue headlight icon lit up, it means you’re driving with your high beams on. Nothing drives me crazy like someone driving unknowingly with his high beams on…

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