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Check Your Brake Lights!

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Automotive Mileposts Troubleshooting/Tech Tips Series

When people drive automobiles, they communicate with each other in several ways. The position of the car itself on the road is perhaps the biggest indicator of the driver's intentions. For instance, a car positioned in a right turn lane is certainly going to turn right, correct? Hmmm...not necessarily.

Turn signals are an indication that the driver wants to turn the vehicle in a particular direction. Left for a left turn, and right for a right turn. Increasingly, drivers either don't know how to use turn signals, or perhaps their new vehicle isn't equipped with them, because they aren't used! It could be that the driver is distracted or forgetful, and just forgot to use them. Or they could just be a rude driver that hardly ever uses them. After all, it's more important to send that text message or make a call, isn't it?

The sound of a horn draws attention to a vehicle, usually as a warning to other drivers nearby. It can also say "I'm here, let's go" to someone inside a building waiting for a ride. A honking horn can also indicate a vehicle is being tampered with. A pulsating horn and flashing lights on a new BMW sitting in a parking lot unattended, sends droves of people rushing over to it to make sure it isn't being tampered with, right? Right...

A driver can flash his lights to alert or warn others of his or her presence, or to let oncoming traffic know there's a speed trap ahead. Flashing high beams at night to oncoming traffic says "dim your lights" or tells other drivers "I'm an idiot, I can't see where I'm going so I'll blind you as well."

Use of lights and horns allows drivers to communicate with one another, thus avoiding accidents. When drivers fail to use these devices, they are a danger to themselves and everyone else on the road. They cause all of us to pay higher insurance premiums, because they cause more accidents and drive up insurance claims. The cost of these higher claims is, of course, passed on to the rest of us. We all pay the price for inconsiderate, rude or inattentive drivers.

Other lights on our vehicles serve their own specific purpose. Side marker lights help drivers approaching from the side at night see our presence. Front cornering lamps illuminate curbs, addresses, light our way around dark corners, and also allows traffic approaching from the side know that we're there and planning to turn. License plate lights illuminate our tags, so law enforcement can make sure we're legal, and others can read and attempt to decipher our custom tags, if we have them. I once had a custom tag on a 1966 Thunderbird that said FLEWBYU. I heard of an Audi that displayed an AUDIDOO tag, and a 1970 Eldorado that had a GR8 V8 tag (in recognition of its 500 cubic inch V-8 engine). Why go to the trouble of having a custom tag if people can't see it at night when you drive past them?

Some new cars have turn signal lights on side mirrors, or on the sides of the front fenders, so others can see what they're doing. Fog lamps mounted up front help us see under extreme driving conditions, such as heavy rain, thick fog, or narrow twisting roads.

All of these lights are important, but none of them are as important as the ones in back: the tail lamps. These are perhaps the most important lights on a vehicle. Headlights at night are important as well of course, and many new cars have daytime running lights ("DRLs") that come on automatically so others can see them better during daylight hours, too. These DRLs are dimmer than the standard head lamps, but I do see dolts (picture Homer Simpson) using them at night in place of regular headlights. The tell tale sign here is the lack of any other visible outside illumination on their vehicle.

1970 Thunderbird tail lampsThe rear lights on a vehicle alert drivers behind that there's something there, and tell them what the driver of that vehicle intends to do. That is, as long as the driver uses them and they are working correctly. These important lights let following drivers know when a vehicle is slowing down, about to stop, or when it is ready to make a turn. This all-important communication to following drivers is essential in preventing accidents.

Yet time after time, I notice beautifully preserved or restored classic cars driving down the road, with gorgeous shiny paint, beautiful chrome and pot metal, perfect emblems, and an obviously proud owner sitting behind the wheel, only to pull up to a stop sign or traffic light WITH NO BRAKE LIGHTS! Or lights that work but are so dim you can't see them unless you're looking for them. Chances are good that the stressed out soccer mom on the cell phone in the mini van or SUV, with five screaming kids, following behind, isn't going to be looking for brake lights on the car ahead.

1973 Continental Mark IV rear viewIs the Mark IV at right stopped? Slowing down? Moving? At first glance, a distracted driver following behind can't tell. And when you think about it, a rear end collision is the one type of accident you can't do anything about! If you're sitting in traffic, with cars in front and on both sides, there's really very little you can do when you notice the car approaching from behind is coming at you a little too fast. About all you can do is pray for the best and hope they notice before it's too late.

This makes me wonder why anyone would go to the trouble and expense of preserving a beautiful classic car without making sure it was safe to drive! If some of the brake lights are burned out, or are too dim to see, or if they just flat don't work at all, who's at fault? Who has the responsibility to make sure they work? That would be the owner of the car. Even if others drive the car normally, the owner should still make sure things are in proper working order before others use the vehicle.

Since this article is originally being published on the first day of a new year, let's all make a resolution to check all of the exterior lights on our cars, especially the brake and signal lights, EVERY TIME before the car is driven. Let's all make sure the brake lights work properly, and are bright enough to see under whatever conditions the car will be driven in. If full sun is shining on the back of the car, and the lights aren't readily visible, you're asking for trouble.

In today's fast-paced world, other drivers may not be out for a leisurely drive; they might be late for an appointment, angry at their spouse or someone else, lost, tired, drunk, drugged up, inattentive, too stupid to drive, just plain rude, or any one of a number of other factors.

Make sure others on the road know what you're going to do when you're driving your classic car. Older cars aren't the norm on today's roads, and often lack the big, bright lights newer cars utilize. Tail lights on our older cars are often more integrated into the design, so they don't stand out as much as their newer counterparts. Let's keep this resolution to make sure our lights are in good working order. We don't want to see any great classic cars parted out because they were hit from behind by an inattentive driver, especially if it was because there wasn't any communication taking place to let that driver know they needed to slow down or stop.

1964 Imperial LeBaron rear viewTo check your brake lights, it's normally easy enough to look in the rear view mirror with the garage door closed to see if they light up when the brake is depressed. Some cars may need to have the ignition switch turned to the accessory or on position to make this happen. (Don't start the engine with the garage door closed!) If you don't park your classic in a garage, ask someone else to stand behind the car and tell you when the brake lights go on or off. Your brake lights should come on with the brake pedal just barely depressed. They should stay on through the entire pedal travel range as well. If you lift off the brake pedal slightly, and they go off, you need to adjust your brake light switch. Some will work properly when the brakes are applied hard, but when the driver lets up on the pedal after stopping, the lights extinguish and effectively cut off communication to people behind the car.

If your brake lights don't work, first check to see if there's a fuse protecting the circuit, or a circuit breaker. Find out what else is on the same circuit, and see if it works. Replace the fuse or breaker if nothing else on that circuit works. Then check to see if the bulbs themselves are good. Try the running lights and/or turn signals. Perhaps one of the filaments is burned out on the bulb. If the turn signal filament works, but the brake lights don't come on, the brake light switch is probably at fault, unless there's a separate bulb solely for the brakes or signals. Check the wiring going to the light bulb sockets to make sure it's in good repair. Remove the bulbs and make sure the sockets are clean and well grounded. Replacement sockets to fit most older cars are available at just about any good auto parts store.

If everything looks good at the socket, but you still don't have brake lights, check the brake light switch. Most likely, it's mounted on the brake pedal arm under the instrument panel, or on the brake master cylinder. Most switches have two wires going to them. Carefully connect the two wires and see if you have brake lights. Remember to use caution, you're dealing with old wiring and you could blow a fuse or worse! It might be best to disconnect the battery while making this connection, then briefly connect the battery and watch to see if the brake lights come on. If there's a short, you can quickly disconnect the battery to prevent damaging your wiring. If you do see brake lights after making this connection, your switch is probably bad and needs to be replaced. If you don't, there's most likely a break in the wiring between the switch and the lights. Bad turn signal switches can also cause problems for brake lights, as many cars run the brake lights through the turn signal switch. It's possible for the signals to work properly, and still have a bad switch, so additional troubleshooting may be required to locate the cause. But whatever the cause, make a promise to yourself that you won't drive the car until the brake lights are repaired.

If the lights work, but are difficult to see in bright sunlight, make sure the bulb is the correct one for the car, that the inside surface of the lens is clean, that the bulb itself is clean, and that the reflective surface in the housing is shiny. If the housing is dull or stained, spray it with a chrome aerosol paint. This finish isn't as shiny as actual chrome, but it does help restore reflectivity to worn tail light housings, thus increasing brightness. Also, very often the original intent of the manufacturer was not to have a chrome-like finish, as it created too much glare, which disturbed the light pattern. Some housings have ripples to break up the light a bit. The point is to make sure there's some reflectivity so the lights are as bright as possible.

Whatever you do, DO SOMETHING before driving the car again. This is a very common problem, I see it frequently at car shows, car auctions, and on the roads in the community where I live. I hope your car isn't one of the ones I've seen without properly working brake lights! If you haven't checked them lately, you need to! Driving safely means you make sure your car is operating properly before you get it out on the road.

Related Information: Automotive Brake Light Bulb Comparison

If you have advice, tips, technical ability, or just know a secret or two about old cars, and you'd like to contribute, send us an E-mail and tell us about it. We'll help you write it, and give you the credit for it! It's the perfect way to help out your fellow enthusiasts in the old car hobby.
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