I distinctly remembered the first time I turned the light on in my mom’s car. The light flicked on, and she activated the “mom voice.” “Turn that light off, NOW!” I did, flicking off the offending light immediately, hands shaking, and mom explained, “It’s illegal to have the light on in the car when driving.” It turns out mom was wrong (but don’t tell her I said that.)
In fact, it is not illegal to have an interior car light on. Not a single state in the U.S. outlaws using interior car lights while driving. However, dome lights can contribute to illegal behavior like distracted driving.
Parents everywhere have a good reason for telling their children not to play with the lights in a car – it’s not just an urban legend they want to share! There is a time and a place to use your car’s interior lights; just be sure you’re doing it safely.
Meet Your Car’s Dome Lights (or Courtesy Lights)
Most vehicles have useful little lights stationed inside the car’s cab. They are interchangeably known as dome lights or courtesy lights.
Their job is to illuminate the inside of the vehicle as someone enters or exists it. They are typically programmed to stay on while a person buckles or gets comfortable in the seat and will turn off when the car turns on.
Why Do Parents Tell Their Kid Using Dome Lights While Driving Is Illegal?
In all honesty, most parents tell their kids not to play with the interior lights of a car for one reason: it’s annoying. Flickering lights belong in horror movies, not a moving vehicle. For a car-savvy parent, it may be a method of prevention as well.
Remember, dome lights automatically turn on when a car door opens. Drivers become attuned to this fact and may instinctively react as if a car door has opened if a child flicks on the light.
It can be a heart-stopping moment to be on the highway and see the dome light come on as if to signal a child has opened a door of the moving car. In short, the dome light works as a signal for the parental driver, and it makes sense that they wouldn’t want it randomly turning on for no reason.
Should Parents Tell Their Kids It’s Illegal?
Parenting is a personal experience, but some advice is always helpful. Instead of telling your child using the car light while driving is illegal, tell them the truth: it’s dangerous and makes mommy or daddy worried.
Kids are receptive to their parents’ needs just as much as you are to theirs. Plus, not lying to them about the status of using an interior car light prevents them from starting to drive at 15 or 16 with incorrect notions about motor vehicle laws.
Can Parents Stop Dome Lights From Being Manually Turned On?
In general, dome lights cannot be deprogrammed or removed from their switch without messing with the car’s wiring. Additionally, removing dome lights or tinkering with their wiring poses an electrical and safety risk to the vehicle and its occupants.
However, if dome lights are a constant toy for an intrigued toddler, parents can put a piece of electrical tape over the switch for a while until the toddler learns not to play with it. The light will still turn on as programmed, but the child won’t be able to mess with it.
Is It Dangerous to Other Drivers to Turn a Light On In the Car?
Yes, dome lights pose a danger when used in a moving vehicle. If you see a car driving down the road with interior lights on, you immediately think something is wrong. No, they don’t actively hurt someone when they turn on, but they create a distraction for the car’s driver and other drivers nearby.
Is It Dangerous For YOU To Drive With a Light On In the Car?
Yes, dome lights can reduce your ability to drive safely. Dome lights are known to produce a glare on the front and rear windshield, creating a blind spot for drivers. It’s especially problematic at night or during rain or snow when your visibility is already naturally reduced.
It’s not just the visibility that leads to unsafe driving. When a light goes on in the car because a curious child has started playing with it, your instinct is to turn around to identify why they did it lecture them about it, and turn off the light yourself.
Doing so immediately takes your full attention off the road and other drivers, putting yourself and your passengers into an unsafe situation.
Do Interior Car Lights Qualify As Distracted Driving?
Distracted driving claims over 3,000 lives annually in the United States. Despite popular belief, distracted driving is not synonymous with texting and driving. Activated dome lights distract you, the driver, and other drivers around you.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identifies any activity that diverts attention from driving as distracted driving. This definition does extend to using your dome or dome lights in the car at any time of day. If the lights are irritating you or other drivers, it qualifies as a distraction.
Can You Get A Ticket For Dome Lights Being On In The Car?
This question is a popular one, but the answer is pretty straightforward: no, you cannot get ticketed for the lights being on in your car. That is not a charge police use when writing tickets. But you can get ticketed because the lights are on in your car AND you are driving distracted.
Whether you get pulled over for dome lights being on in your car depends on the extenuating circumstances the police officer identifies. An officer won’t pull you over just for having the dome lights on, but they will pull you over if you’re using the dome light to apply makeup or locate a dropped pen.
And, if you get into a fender bender while the dome light is on in your car, it may be ruled as the cause and land you with a ticket or liability.
Some states have specific laws regarding distracted driving. In general, though, distracted driving is determined under one of three types: visual, manual, or cognitive. The use of dome lights can qualify as all three depending on the situation. If you are taking your eyes off the road to figure out why the dome light is on, it counts as a visual distraction situation.
Contrarily, using the dome lights for fishing out a dropped french fry between the seats counts as a manual distraction situation. Finally, if the dome light makes it hard for you to focus on the road and causes a fender bender, it would qualify as a cognitive distraction.
How Do You Prevent Dome Light Distractions?
There are many ways for drivers and passengers to prevent dome light distractions.
It’s important to establish ground rules for being in the car. For parents, this may mean laying down the law when it comes to dome lights – tell your child they cannot touch this because it is dangerous for mommy and daddy to drive with it on. Explain that if they need the light on, they should tell the driver.
Training a child to tell you their need for light gives you, the driver, the opportunity to explain to the child if their need for the light can wait and let them know you’ll pull over and let them use the light safely.
Preventing dome light distractions isn’t just about training an inquisitive child not to push buttons. You can prepare yourself to react safely and calmly to a dome light turning on, too.
Instead of turning around to chastise the child and identify the cause of the light turning on, flick on your hazard lights and pull over to make sure there isn’t actually a problem. Doing so protects other drivers and notifies them to drive carefully around you until you can address your situation.
Remember how you react to a driving distraction noted by your child and other passengers. If you want to teach your children to drive safely in their future, be a good example and promote safe behaviors early!
For Kids and Passengers
If you need additional light to do something in the car, speak up! It’s perfectly okay for you to say, “I need a minute to fix the buckle,” or “I lost my toy, can you pull over so I can find it safely?”
The dome lights are a useful tool for a car’s driver and occupants when appropriately used. While the light itself is not illegal to use, dome lights can contribute to unlawful behavior. Drivers can reduce the chances of dome lights creating a distraction by creating a mentality for themselves and their passengers that promotes safe driving.
Make a plan not to eat while driving, don’t use the car for applying make-up, and never utilize the vehicle for anything other than getting from one place to another.
If the dome lights come on in the car, choose to pull over and safely address the cause instead of trying to fix it while driving. A two-minute delay spent fixing a cracked door that triggered the dome light will take much less time than a fender bender caused by trying to fix it while driving.