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Do All Cars Have License Plate Lights?

Night driving gives responsibility to drivers and owners of vehicles to maintain the appropriate lighting systems for their vehicles. In relation to vehicle lighting systems, should you illuminate the license plate? We have consulted various federal and state rulings to help you properly ascertain this matter. 

Multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, buses, trailers, and motorcycles must have a light installed to illuminate the license plate. The light should:

  • be installed to illuminate the rear license plate;
  • be located either on top or at the sides of the rear license plate;
  • emit white light.

Sounds like a simple requirement, but there are caveats. Keep reading to understand more about lighting the license plate of your vehicle.

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Driver checking the tire pressure of his car, Do All Cars Have License Plate Lights?

Safety Requirements for Illuminating the License Plate

The lighting system is a requirement per Chapter V of the  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Department Of Transportation

As stated by Part 571 - Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, multiple license plate lights and backup lights may be used to fulfill the requirements of the SAE Standards. These are applicable to such lights as referenced in Tables I and III. 

Also required, is the installation of one (1) light that will emit white light for the purpose of illuminating the rear license plate for multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, and buses, as well as trailers and motorcycles. 

Further, Tables II and IV specifically require that the light should be installed on the top or side of the rear license plate so as to illuminate the license plate either from the top, or the sides.

What colors can license plate lights be?

Two huge cargo trucks filling up gas at a gasoline station

The Department of Transportation Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards is straightforward, the light is required to emit white light. 

At least thirty-nine (39) states agreed with this standard by coming up with either laws or regulations that mandate the installation of a light that should emit white light to illuminate license plates of vehicles in their jurisdiction.

Are LED license plate lights illegal?

LED license plate lights are not illegal for as long as they emit white light. In fact, LED lights are preferred over incandescent bulbs due to their superior durability.

LED lights have higher costs compared to cheap incandescent bulbs but their economic advantages will eventually be realized over time because they have a substantially longer lifespan than incandescent bulbs. They also require lesser maintenance compared to incandescent ones.

The typical lifespan of an incandescent bulb is around 1-5% of that of a LED bulb. This means you are expected to have more bulb changes through time if your vehicle is using incandescent ones.

Due to these circumstances, a switch to LED lighting system is encouraged. It’s the color requirement that you'll need to comply with.

Can you dim license plate lights?

An expressway photographed at night with lots of cars

This is not a good idea and not advisable. 

At least thirty-two (32) states have laws or rules that require motor vehicles to have a tail light or a separate light strategically constructed and placed to illuminate with a white light the rear registration plate and render it clearly legible from a distance of 50 feet to the rear.

Rhode Island is strictest as it specifies the distance at 60 feet to the rear. As with many of the other states, it also required the light for illuminating the rear registration plate to be so wired so the lamp will be lighted whenever the headlamps or auxiliary driving lights are lighted.

The spirit of these rules and laws is clear, make the license plate of your vehicle identifiable at a reasonable distance. Dimming the license plate lights contradicts the spirit of these rules and laws.

How do you change a license plate light?

Car moving on the expressway

Before attempting to replace the bulb itself, check first the fuses involved in the lighting system. The problem could be a simple case of a busted fuse and not the bulb. This will let you avoid the hassle of going after a solution that does not address the correct problem.

If you are certain the fuses are working properly, replacement of the bulb is indeed needed. Check the assembly of the casing that houses or covers the bulb. It could be held together by screws or by a locking mechanism. 

Unscrew or release the locking mechanism to reach for the busted bulb. Twist or unsnap the busted bulb from its socket and pull it out. Replace a new bulb and reinstall the casing to its original state.

Let your car be identified, You've Got Nothing to Hide

Driver checking the tire pressure of his car

Law-abiding drivers should have nothing to fear. Displaying your license plate and having it illuminated at night would do you nothing but good. 

Following the rules could save you not only from law enforcement ticket trouble but also help you out in different times of need and emergencies like when authorities are trying to retrieve your stolen car. 

Lights to your plates are also of real help during practical problems, for easier tracking and locating your vehicle. For even more great information, check out our related articles:

How Long Does It Take To Get A License Plate?

Why Are My Car Headlights Not Bright Enough?