Do Brake Lights Have To Be Red?

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Imagine this scenario: You press down on the brake pedal of your antique vehicle and the brake lights emit an amber hue. But, lo and behold, the traffic cop pulls you over.

Before you could say Jack Robinson, the superintendent’s ticketed you for using illegal brake light color. Are you guilty or not? We’ll learn the answer in no time. But, let’s explore a little further.

Have you taken time to ask, ‘do brake lights have to be red’? Even if you have an idea, are there other color options that your car’s brake lights can legitimately have? I have heard people argue that brake lights have to be red.

But let’s face it, ‘do brake lights have to be red?’ In this article, I’ll provide a comprehensive answer to this question as well as offer insights into the legality of using alternative brake light color on your vehicle.

Do Brake Lights Have To Be Red?

The straight answer to your question is yes. Brake lights must be red. Either by design or law, brake lights illuminate a red spectrum. This is the standard rule in all 50 states.

All motor vehicles whether they ply the highways or not must be equipped with red brake lights. There are a few exceptions in some states. However, it is a given that your car brake lights must emit a red color.

You can argue the logic and philosophy behind this, but that should come after understanding the extant provisions.

Now, take a look at the following excerpt from the statute of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) with respect to the color of brake lights:

“Every motor vehicle, trailer, or semitrailer, …shall be equipped with at least one brake light…Such brake lights shall automatically exhibit a red or amber light…”

This is one state out of the 50 states. The state you reside in will determine what law to read about.

The rule in all the states is that motorized vehicles must have red or amber rear-facing lights. The rule guiding the reverse light color is a bit different. When you depress the brake pedal, the brake light has to be red.

A lot of drivers mistake the brake light with the taillight. The two are different even though they might sometimes emit the same red color.

The brake lights only come on when you hit the brake pedal. In the case of the taillights, they only illuminate when your car’s headlight is on. Although they are red, they do not stand for the brake light.

Plus, they don’t have the kind of brightness an activated brake light will give off. Another pro of the red brake light over the red taillight is its higher wattage.

Don’t forget, the brake lights are not just the two lights on either side of the rear of your car. There is a federally required third brake light.

The law has been in place for decades. The point is that you should activate the third brake light when you’re enabling the two main lights.

This way, you can avoid being ticketed by the law enforcement cop. Like you have noticed, the states have constitutional liberty to determine what is needed to mandate the third brake light.

Essentially, the requirements for the third brake light depend on your state of residence.

What Brake Lights Mean And How They Work

Brake lights are red lights located on the rear of a vehicle. They automatically come on whenever you press down on the brake pedal of your vehicle. They are installed on your car to serve a functional safety purpose.

When you apply the brakes, the pedal transmits electrical power to the signal lights. The brake lights generally send a signal to an oncoming vehicle at the back that you’re slowing down, about to stop your car, or making a turning.

The following drivers must take caution by also applying their brakes or removing their foot off the gas pedal. There have to be operational brake lights to reduce the incidence of rear-end collisions.

You might be lucky to escape the hammer of the traffic cop if one of the brake lights has gone out of operation.

The good news is that the wiring system of a vehicle’s brake light isn’t complex to handle. You don’t need any expertise or special knowledge. In simple terms, a wiring harness is connected to bulbs at one end of the car.

These bulbs are housed in a socket. The brake light switch occupies the other end of the system. The switch is an electrical device that automatically turns on your brake light once you press down on the brake pedal.

The pedal lowers to create electrical contact with the lights themselves. The circuit is completed when the system draws electrical energy from the car battery.

Why red? Let me say that the brake lights can be cardinal red, carmine, dark red, apple red, or crimson. What matters is that the taillight has to come from and belong to the family of red color.

Generally, red is considered to be visible and clear to the human eyes. Regardless of the distance, you can easily detect the red color and take caution accordingly. This is why it is used as a color for warning and caution. Red also signifies danger.

The use of red had been around even before Karl Benz came up with the idea of inventing automobiles.

It doesn’t matter their height of influence or creative powers, auto manufacturers have no creative license to choose any other color outside the red – red family- for brake lights.

In fact, a little internet search shows you that a brake light is a red light on the rear of a vehicle.

In our elementary physics, precisely our childhood knowledge of the VIBGYOR rainbow color, red has the maximum wavelength but minimum frequency.

When light refracts, particles are not able to easily disperse the red color. In other words, red hardly deviates which explains why you and other drivers can see the color from greater and farther distances.


Can I Fix The Brake Light Myself?

The interesting thing is that fixing faulty brake lights is not rocket science. You can fix a bad brake light system yourself.

But, you have to have a little skill and knowledge about the brake light wiring system. The brake light wiring mechanism in most modern-day vehicles is pretty simple to know.

To tell you the extent of the simplicity of the brake light wiring system, you can do a rewiring of your car brake lights. When fixing a few things on the brakes, the brake lights might get affected.

It’s important you inspect the lights after completing the repair. Here’s the thing: never replace a brake light with a taillight. As you may have noticed, the luminosity of the brake lights is higher than that of the taillight or any rear-end lights on your car.

How Can I Maintain My Car Brake Lights?

Before and after finishing replacing the brake light bulbs, you should check again and again to be sure they’re working.

One thing you shouldn’t compromise is the brightness of your brake lights. Due to a number of factors, the brake lights may go out more often than other lights.

The rule of thumb is that you should replace all the brake light bulbs whenever one has gone out.

Besides, make sure you keep the light lenses clean. Sometimes, you can remove the lenses and clean the interior to keep the brightness.

Occasionally, you may ask a friend to press down the brake pedal so you can inspect the condition of the brake lights.

Can Brake Lights Be Yellow Or Amber?

No. As I have noted earlier, the only color option you have outside red is any of the colors in the red family. A yellow or blue brake light is illegal.

All the 50 states provide that brake lights must be red. Although amber slightly looks like a color from the red family, it cannot replace the brake lights.

However, most states allow the amber to serve as a color for other rear signal lamps.

Final Word

Have you ever gotten stuck behind a vehicle with a faulty brake light system? What about a vehicle with indefinitely illuminating brake lights?

If you ask me umpteen times, ‘do brake lights have to be red?’ my response will be yes. Should you take my word for it?

Yes. But are there other things you can do to get things clearer? I think you should take some time out to read up the provision as enshrined in your state’s code. This way, you can avoid running foul of the DOT law.

A general rule of thumb is that if your vehicle is manufactured or assembled before 1960 – and I doubt very much if any pre-1960 manufactured car will still be roadworthy in 2021- it must have at least one functional brake light.