For some drivers, vehicles are simply a means to an end, a way to get from one place to another. But many more consider their cars and trucks extensions of their personal space and worthy of decoration.
For some age groups in some areas, smoked headlights are the current vehicular fashion trend. But those who love this trend and live in Pennsylvania should look before leaping into this pricey feature. Are smoked headlight covers legal on Pennsylvania streets and highways? The simple answer is no.
Whats and Whys of Headlight Covers
Vehicle owners that are into car headlight and brake light covers are already well aware of what these light covers look like. They are described as essential gear for auto enthusiasts in some neighborhoods. And car light covers can serve a useful purpose.
Anyone traveling over rough roads, including roads covered with sand or gravel, notice that the surface negatively impacts their headlights and brake lights. Salt is another potential problem – both salt and sand are deliberately spread over roads in cold-winter states.
All these abrasive particles "sand down" a car's entire paint job, but headlamps and brake lights are the hardest hit. The lenses are dulled and pitted by road particles which, in turn, limits the light that the lamps emit. The lenses are sensitive and can be damaged by almost any interaction, even too much sun.
Although it seems that headlights might have been designed to meet these challenges, they have not, in fact, been toughened up very much over the years. That's why some fans of their vehicles are interested in buying and installing covers to protect their front and back lights.
Clear Vehicle Headlight Covers
These sand/salt/dirt abrasion headlight issues can be solved quickly and easily by buying and installing clear headlight protectors for vehicles. The clear versions of the soft urethane peel-and-stick headlight covers are easy to install and legal everywhere.
They allow 100 percent of the light to pass through, giving the headlights strong beams that light up the road at night and notify other cars of their presence.
Tinted and Patterned Vehicle Headlight Covers
However, the clear versions are not pleasing to all. There are many other styles available, some of them quite trendy, including fully tinted headlight and taillight cover pieces and even covers that transform the look of the light to imitate projector beams. Other products available include smoked or tinted hard covers and tinted headlight covers with a simulated carbon fiber look.
These variations on the clear covers are a matter of fashion, not safety. The striped and filtered headlight covers for rear lights and brake lights have nothing to do with safety. They are simply eye-catching, making the vehicle stand out in a crowd.
Likewise, covers that block out parts of the headlight lens to accentuate the projector beam lights in the assembly are simply a matter of style.
What Are Smoked Headlights?
Smoked headlights are a variation of headlight covers. Instead of simply adding a cover to existing headlights, they actually involve replacement of the standard headlight assembly with aftermarket headlights. These aftermarket products feature chrome-plated backgrounds and smoke-tinted lenses.
However, some use the term "smoked headlights" to simply refer to OEM lights that have been tinted gray with VHT spray or vinyl wrap.
Many aftermarket smoked headlights come equipped with extra design elements, which include such options as:
- LED accents.
- Halo rings.
- LED strips.
Light- Smoked and Dark-Smoked Headlights
Smoked headlights available aftermarket are either light-smoked headlights or dark-smoked headlights. Both of these types come with chrome-plated backgrounds and tinted plastic lenses.
Other types are called black-smoked headlights, which refers to their black housing color, not the amount of light emitted. Black, in this case, is for the background of the headlight.
Will the smoky color of the headlights reduce the projection of the beams? Experts agree that all headlight tint lowers the output of light. Darker covers or tinting lower the output even more, and there is no way to avoid that. Advertising claims to the contrary should be taken with a grain of salt since any smoked tinting will cause a significant output reduction.
Issues With Vehicle Light Covers
The biggest issue states have with headlight and brake light covers, as well as aftermarket smoked headlights is that they make it dangerous to drive at night. Why is that? The covers diminish the amount of light emitted from the headlights and brake lights.
Other cars on the road cannot see these lights from the normal distance, reducing the vehicle's visibility at night. Because of this issue, some states permit these headlight covers during the day but forbid their use at night.
Some states also mandate the color of light that can be emitted from a vehicle's headlamps and how bright it must be. White light standards make tinted headlight covers illegal, and their limited projection can also break some state laws. Blackout covers are universally disallowed for night driving for obvious reasons.
State Laws Regulating Headlights
As described above, the two primary types of state laws regulating headlight covers involve the color of light emitted from the headlamps and taillights of a vehicle, and how bright these lights must be. The brightness level also indicates the projection of the light and is often described in terms of a unit called candlepower.
Those residents of Pennsylvania interested in headlight covers or smoked aftermarket headlights should get a clear overview of the state laws on this topic. Pennsylvania has statutes that fall into both the light color and the brightness level categories. This effectively limits the type of covers that can be used and the type of aftermarket products that can be installed.
Also, Pennsylvania state laws explicitly prohibit the use of tinted covers for headlights and brake lights on motor vehicles.
Pennsylvania Headlight Laws
Anyone who buys a new car from a dealer is likely to find that the vehicle comes with white lights in the headlights and no tinted headlight covers. This is true in Pennsylvania and in other states. And the Pennsylvania headlight laws don't permit tinted covers that change the quality of the light that comes from the vehicle's lights.
In Pennsylvania, statutes describing passenger vehicle lighting are found in the state's Motor Vehicle Code Section 153 and Section 175.66. The colors of light permitted in the headlamps of different types of vehicles is located in Appendix A following Section 153. For passenger vehicles, required headlights are either:
- 2 white, 7-inch, Type 2 headlamp units or
- 2 white, 5 1/4-inch, Type 1 headlamp units and 2 white, 5 1/4-inch, Type 2 headlamp units.
Other Rules About Lighting and Electrical Systems
Section 175.66 sets out other rules about lighting and electrical systems in a car. It describes the minimum and maximum candlepower permitted on headlights, as well as auxiliary and fog lamps, and when each can be used.
Candlepower is a designation of headlight brightness. To drive on Philadelphia streets and highways, the headlights must not be under 7,500 candlepower nor over 10,000 candlepower.
Smoked Headlight Covers Prohibited
The same Motor Vehicle Code Section 175.66 that mandates the candlepower of headlights also discusses headlight covers. This is found in MVC 175.66 paragraph(g). It provides:
"Section 175.66(g) Condition and position of lamps: Lamps shall...not be so obstructed by a screen, bar, auxiliary equipment or a device as to obscure, change the color of, or obstruct beam."
This law makes it crystal clear that it is illegal in the state to alter the color of a headlight beam or obstruct it with any screen, cover or device. Replacing a standard headlamp assembly with an aftermarket one that emits a non-white light would also be a violation of the statutes.
Headlight Laws Do Not Apply to Off-Road Vehicles
Does this mean that a driver cannot circle their own land with headlight covers? It does not. These laws apply only to vehicles driven or operated on Pennsylvania streets, highways and freeways. The law won't penalize anyone who uses smoked headlight covers and drives off-road all night long.
Taillight Tint Laws in Pennsylvania
Given that smoked headlight covers are not permitted on streets, highways or freeways in Pennsylvania, it may be evident that smoked taillight covers are not legal either. The same law that applies to headlights in Pennsylvania covers taillights, too.
Taillights must emit red light in this state. A driver cannot insert tinted or smoked taillight covers or use aftermarket products that affect that light and operate the vehicle on state roads or highways. As with headlights, a car owner is free to smoke up their taillights or tint them however they like as long as they do not plan to operate the vehicle on a road.
Pennsylvania Vehicle Inspections
Note that a car owner is required to get periodic vehicle inspections in Pennsylvania for registration purposes. The person performing the inspection is licensed to perform the car check and is required by law to make sure that the headlights and taillights meet state standards.
The inspection is required by Motor Vehicle Code Section 175.80 to include a check of a variety of lighting issues on a passenger vehicle. The inspector must check the lamps and lenses. They are required to reject the vehicle and not permit registration if one or more of the following sections apply:
(i) An exterior bulb or sealed beam, if originally equipped or installed, fails to light properly, except ornamental lights.
(ii) Turn signal lamps do not flash between 60 and 120 flashes per minute.
(iii) Turn signal lamps do not properly indicate right or left or hold in position when so switched or do not self-cancel if originally designed to do so.
(iv) Back-up lamps do not turn off automatically when the vehicle goes forward; there is no back-up indicator on dash or no audible warning signal.
(v) Lamp shows a color contrary to the lighting chart.
(vi) Lamp or filament indicated at the switch position does not light when the correct switch indicates the lamp should be on.
(vii) Lamp has missing or broken lens.
(viii) Required lamp is missing.
(ix) Auxiliary equipment is placed on, in, or in front of a lamp.
(x) Fog lamps operate with the high beams of the headlamps or are substituted for low beams.
(xi) Auxiliary driving lamps operate with the low beam of standard headlamp system or alone.
(xii) Headlamps are out of adjustment.
Anyone who modifies the headlights or taillights of a vehicle in Pennsylvania in such a way as to violate the state Motor Vehicle Code might be caught at a DMV inspection, in addition to getting stopped by law enforcement. Given the fact that smoked headlights are very obvious, especially in the evening, it may not be worth it for a Pennsylvania driver to follow this vehicle fashion trend.
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.