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What are Running Lights?

By J. Beam
Updated May 23, 2024
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Running lights are the lights on the front end of a vehicle that automatically turn on when the vehicle is started and stay on as long as the engine is running. They do not operate at the same brightness level as headlights or high beams. Also referred to as daytime running lights or DRLs, they were first widely introduced on several makes and models of vehicles in the United States in the early 1990s. Though the United States currently has no law mandating these lights, many countries, including Canada and several European countries, have laws regarding their use.

Though the design and use of running lights has been the center of controversy, studies performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and similar institutions have found that their use is effective at preventing daytime, head-on collisions by increasing the visibility of vehicles. However, many people argue that they increase fuel spending and creates the potential to neglect the manual operation of vehicle lights at night.

Increased fuel spending, while a legitimate concern, is actually minimal with an increased cost average of only a few US Dollars annually. However, many drivers of vehicles that have these lights forget to manually turn on their headlights at night. Because they only operate from the front of the car, not the rear, forgetfulness at night can be a dangerous problem.

Because of increased safety, almost every make and model of passenger car, pickup truck, van, and SUV now comes standard with daytime running lights. General Motors, as well as other retailers, offers retrofit kits for older vehicles that do not have them. While DRLs are designed to be automatic, drivers must still assume responsibility for turning on their lights when driving at night and in weather that creates poor visibility.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon354377 — On Nov 07, 2013

About 90 percent of the cars that are driving without headlights are Fords, so the last thing you will probably see as you jam on your brakes because the driver has not turned on his rear lights is the Ford logo. They should be made to fix the vehicles as a safety issue.

About 8 percent are Acura and Honda SUV models. I have seen one Toyota in three months. Everyone who gets a new vehicle should be trained in turning the lights on properly and the dash lights should go out at night unless they are properly turned on. -- Bob L

By anon288560 — On Aug 30, 2012

Running lights, in their current form, are a menace on British roads. I don't know which is worse, their ability to dazzle or to distract.

LED type front or rear lighting is another disgraceful fashion in motor vehicle design, pandering to the childish mentality that has little more to offer than the visage of what it drives. Usually badly, too.

By rubenoff — On Feb 05, 2012

Our 2007 Ford Focus had a unique headlamp control feature. The daytime running lamps operate in the low beam circuit and operate at half brilliance. The tail lamps do not operate with the D.R.L. in automatic mode so we have to remember to switch on that park tail lamps in the afternoon.

When we turn on the headlamps, on the light switch, the regular hi and low beam operate normally. We can operate the fog lamps alone with the tail and parking lamps by turning the lamp switch to park lamp mode and then selecting fog lamps.

This gives the flexibility to meet the B.C. M.V. act regulations and respects the eyes of the oncoming motorists when the weather is clear and fog lamps are not required.

By afterall — On Jan 23, 2011

@sherlock87, my dad has that problem. I had a 95 Saab hatchback I drove in high school and college, and the lights switched off when you turned off the car. He was obsessed with the fear that this might "damage the battery" even though it clearly did not, so every time he drove it I would have to switch the lights back on. Not a problem, except when I was younger I actually listened when he lectured me on turning them off, and once accidentally turned it off, but didn't go all the way and left them on the parking lights all night accidentally. Auto running lights can be a pain in their own convenience.

By sherlock87 — On Jan 21, 2011

Daytime running lights can be convenient, though the one thing that I know sometimes frustrates people who drive with them for the first time is that many car models' running lights turn off by themselves. While this in itself is not a problem at all, far from it, it can be frustrating for people who have lived their whole lives with cars whose lights must be switched off to prevent the battery from dying.

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