Most states require working headlights on all vehicles operated on public roads, and Tennessee is no exception. Tennessee laws about the use of headlights in motor vehicles are found in Tennessee Codes Title 55, Motor and Other Vehicles, and mandate headlight use.
Can a driver get pulled over for having a headlight out in Tennessee? Absolutely. That means that everyone living in or driving through Tennessee should be familiar with state laws and regulations about vehicle headlights.
Benefits of Headlights
Headlights on motor vehicles are essential safety features, but they also carry risks if not adjusted properly and used appropriately. The most obvious benefit of headlamps is that they allow motorists to see the road ahead in the dusk or dark.
They help drivers to see other cars on the highway and to stay in the correct lane. Headlights also prevent a driver from accidentally veering off the roadway and smashing into someone or something on the side of the road.
Headlights make the motor vehicle visible to others. This applies to other cars and trucks approaching on the road, but also to pedestrians and bicycle riders that may be crossing the road. If they see the headlamps, they know a car is coming and can move off the road to protect themselves in case the driver doesn't see them.
Problems Caused by Headlights
On the other hand, headlights can also cause problems when they are not functioning correctly. For example, who hasn't driven down the road at night, seen one headlight of an oncoming vehicle approaching and expected a motorcycle to pass, when in fact it was a "one-eyed" car or truck?
It's easy to see how this can result in accidents. And when headlights are on high beam, or set too high, or are too bright, they can blind drivers in oncoming cars.
Headlight Laws in Tennessee
All of the benefits of headlights and the problems they can cause when they are not working or used properly lead states to enact headlight laws. These are found in the Tennessee Code at Title 55, Section 9.
The core laws provide that vehicles being operated on Tennessee roads must have at least one working headlight on each side of the car. What headlight colors are legal in the state? To be legal in Tennessee, headlights must emit white or amber light.
Headlights must be quality approved by motor vehicle manufacturers and work properly. They must be calibrated so that, when on low beams, they do not blind or dazzle other drivers or pedestrians. If a driver has a car with too-bright headlights, the owner must get the headlights adjusted and/or install state-approved anti-glare devices.
Tennessee Laws About Car Headlight Use
The second pillar of headlight laws in the state is equally obvious: headlights must be turned on during the times set out in the codes. Under Tennessee Code Sections 55-9-401 and 55-9-406, this applies to any motor vehicle traveling on a state highway or road, or on any street or road under the control of the state government, federal government or local city, town or county.
What are "headlight" hours? Tennessee drivers must drive with their headlights illuminated from 30 minutes after sunset to 30 minutes before sunrise. This is the rule for driving in "normal" conditions. But when visibility is low, as is the case with fog, smoke or rain, a driver must turn on the lights regardless of the hour.
Note that "rain" here includes all forms of precipitation, including snow and mist. This rule also applies at any times when there is insufficient light for a driver to see a person on the road at a distance of 200 feet.
Penalties for Headlight Law Violations
Violations of these headlight laws constitute a misdemeanor in Tennessee.
For example, failure to use headlights during rain is a Class C misdemeanor under Section 55-9-406. The potential jail time is up to 30 days. A police officer can stop vehicles for this issue, and also to check for glare and dazzling lights. If the driver refuses to cooperate with the inspection, the refusal in and of itself is a Class C misdemeanor under Section 55-9-410.
A driver found to be driving with headlights or anti-glare devices that have not been approved by the state will be given a "fix-it" ticket in Tennessee. The patrol officer gives the driver 24 hours to get the issue fixed or to replace faulty equipment. Sometimes the driver is ordered to appear in court and prove that they have complied.
If the equipment is of good quality and state-approved but out of adjustment, the highway patrol will give the driver 48 hours to correct it and obtain a compliance certificate at one of Tennessee's inspection stations.
About LED and Tinted Lights
One issue that often comes up in discussions of headlight laws involves the trendy, colored LED lights younger drivers like to use on the front of their vehicles. These lights are used more for decoration than visibility, and Tennessee regulates their use because they can be distracting.
What color lights are illegal on cars in Tennessee? In the past, many different colored lights were permitted, as well as tinted headlights. However, as of 2018, only white or amber lights are permitted on Tennessee roads. Note that emergency vehicles are exempted from this.
The law applies to non-emergency vehicles, except school buses. It provides:
"No non-emergency vehicle shall operate or install emergency flashing light systems, such as strobe, wig-wag, or other flashing lights within the headlight assembly or grill area of the vehicle; provided, however, that a school bus may operate a flashing, wig-wag lighting system within the headlight assembly of the vehicle when the vehicle's visual stop signs are actuated for receiving or discharging school children. "
Using Red or Blue Lights
Law enforcement is not included in the prohibition of red or blue flashing lights, which are legal for full-time, salaried, uniformed law enforcement officers of the state, county, or city and municipal governments of the state, as well as commissioned members of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation when official duties require them.
However, anyone else who installs, maintains or exhibits blue flashing emergency lights and/or red flashing emergency lights is violating Tennessee law.
Using Neon Underglow Lights
Note that Tennessee codes do not specifically address neon underglow lights. This omission leads some to conclude that underglow neon lights are legal in Tennessee as long as they are not blue or red lights and do not flash.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.