A fully functional tail light is a requirement of any registered vehicle that drives on the roads in all 50 US States. However, the amount of people that are issued "fix-it-tickets" by police and sheriff's departments each year pales in comparison to the amount of people involved in rear-end collisions; caused primarily by a broken tail light. On many occasions, the reason the driver doing the colliding hit the car in front was due to a bad tail light lens that was damaged or was not illuminated.
By law, the tail light lens is supposed to be colored red as to brightly show up in day or night driving situations. The light bulb that illuminates the tail light is white. As a result, when the tail light lens is cracked, broken or damaged, the light that is supposed to alert other drivers of braking or your presence driving in front of them during night hours can appear white, and be very difficult for somebody to see.
The tail light lens itself is lightweight, affordable and rather easy for the casual mechanic to replace. If the tail light lens is damaged and needs to be replaced, it's recommended that you replace the tail light bulb at the same time. This will ensure the entire light will be working well. Unlike other mechanical parts, a bad or failing tail light lens typically does not show warning signs that it's about to break. However, there are different levels of bad or failing as well as a few quick self-diagnostic checks you can perform yourself or with the assistance of a friend that will alert you to this problem so you can have it repaired as soon as possible.
Inspect the tail light lens for cracks
Whether you've backed into a wall, another car or had a shopping cart hit the back of your car, it's very common for our tail light lens to crack and not completely break. A cracked tail light will typically still function correctly, lighting up red while the headlights are active and illuminating bright red when the brake pedal is engaged. However, a cracked light lens will progressively crack more until parts of the light lens fall off. This problem is enhanced every time you drive the car and wind, debris and other items come in contact with the rear tail light lens.
A good rule of thumb is to check your rear tail light lenses any time you fill up with fuel; as you typically have to walk around the rear of your vehicle to put fuel in the tank. This takes all of a few seconds and can save you from receiving a ticket from a police officer or worse, being involved in a traffic accident.
Test your tail lights every week at night
Another good safety tip to consider is having your rear tail lights checked every week with a quick self-examination. To complete this, simply start your car, turn on your headlights, walk to the back of your car, and ensure both tail light lenses are solid. If you can see small cracks on the lens, it's a good bet that the tail light lens will break completely or water will enter the lens; potentially shorting out the electrical system in your car.
Anytime you notice a crack in your tail light lens, contact a local ASE certified mechanic and have them replace it as soon as possible to avoid further damage to your tail light or the electrical system inside your car.
Have the tail light lens inspected by service professionals
Many car owners have their oil changed by service centers like Jiffy Lube, Walmart or their local ASE certified mechanic. When they do, the mechanic technician often will complete a routine safety inspection that has about 50 points on the checklist. One of these items is checking the tail lights to ensure they function properly.
If the mechanic lets you know that the rear tail lens is cracked or broken, make sure to replace it as soon as possible. A fully functional tail light is required by law in the United States. The replacement is very easy, affordable and is much cheaper than a fix-it-ticket or insurance premium.
This article originally appeared on YourMechanic.com as Symptoms of a Bad or Failing Tail Light Lens and was authored by Timothy Charlet.