You know what may be the most misunderstood lamps on cars? The parking lamps. Almost nobody uses them as they were originally intended. Let’s talk about parking lights.
For most people, it’s really not exactly clear what parking lights are actually for, or why they’re called ‘parking lights’ (they’re also more rarely called ‘front position lamps’). At best, they sort of get used as running lights at dawn or dusk when it’s not really dark enough to need your headlights, but maybe you could use a little photonic something to help you be seen. Sort of like Daytime Running Lights (DRLs) for cars that pre-date DRLs.
Though, really, even that use is pretty uncommon. Most people just regard parking lights as that stop between your lights being completely off and actually on. On cars with automatic headlights and DRLs, they almost never get used on their own at all, anymore.
But we’re not most people. You deserve to know what these lights are and what they’re for. So let’s break it down. First, let’s cover the three main types of parking lights.
Photo: Lane Motor Museum
By far the most common type of parking light in the U.S. market are the ones that just illuminate the front indicators (and rear taillamps) in a steady, solid beam. Most indicator bulbs have twin filaments, so the blinking turn indicator can blink brighter when the parking lights are on.
These are also popular to turn on when taking photographs of cars, because they somehow look cool.
White, Separate Lamp (Sidelights)
This type is less common in the American market, but is just as legal and does show up occasionally. Most European and Asian cars have used this method, where the parking light is a separate lamp with a clear/white bulb and lens.
These are called ‘sidelights’ in the U.K. and other countries, but, functionally, they’re effectively the same as U.S.-spec parking lights.
Inside The Headlight Housing
This is easily the least common type of parking light, but it does have some notable users, specifically pre-’67 U.S.-spec Volkswagen Beetles and Porsche 356s. In this case, the parking lights are small, clear bulbs mounted in the same unit as the actual headlamps.
So, What Are They For?
Shockingly, parking lights were designed for...parking. As in you’d leave them on when you parked your car. Remember, these lamps were decided back in an era when guaranteed street lighting was still quite uncommon, and you might be parking on a dark, narrow street.
In order to make sure your car was visible to any drivers that happened to be blaring past, parking lights could guarantee your car would be seen from front or rear. That’s why they’re small and dim—so they won’t suck much power as your car sits there, parked.
Of course, they do suck some power, and if you forget to turn them off they will drain your battery dry.
Most people don’t want to risk draining their battery, and don’t tend to park in inky blackness, so parking lights have generally fallen out of use in this original context.
German cars have traditionally taken this job more seriously, offering the option of only illuminating the lamps on the side of the car facing the road, for more efficient battery usage, and even having special uniquely German dedicated parking lamps, little units that sit on the sides of the car and shine white light forward and red light to the rear.
These are coveted options on Volkswagen Type IIIs, for example.
Of course, those are very specialized parking lamps, and those are pretty much German-only.
The parking lamps we all know and tend to ignore are almost never used as originally intended, but that doesn’t mean they have no use. In many dense, urban cities they can be used in well-lit areas where full headlights aren’t just unneeded, but could be distracting.
If a headlight is out, they can still help define the edges/rough width of a car, and cops seem to like to keep them on while parked, usually talking to another cop car in that window-to-window thing they like to do.
It’s okay that you’re probably using your parking lights wrong, and may very well never use them as originally intended in all your driving life. These are under-appreciated, under-used lamps, but they’re still legally required, so you may as well decide to accept, and perhaps even love them.
I’d suggest that you try driving with just your parking lights on for a while, just to enjoy them, but doing so is actually illegal in many states.
So, there you go: the majesty of parking lights, the only lights on your car you pretty much never use for their intended purpose, and are illegal to use any other time.