There are many excellent reasons to use LED bulbs for your car’s headlamps, including saving money on replacements due to their longer lifespan and better performance.
However, you can’t just buy an LED bulb and fit it in your car. Many bulb manufacturers produce LEDs that are labeled as ‘For off-road use only.’
LED bulbs labeled as ‘off-road use only’ aren’t certified to be used on roads – they might be too bright, the wrong color, or simply untested. It’s illegal to use them when driving on roads, and you could be given a ticket.
In this article I’m going to cover:
- What it means for bulbs to be labelled as ‘off-road only’
- Why these bulbs are illegal for road use
- The potential penalties if you do break the law
What Does The ‘Off-Road Use Only’ Mean On The Lighting?
A number of LED lighting manufacturers will add a label to their bulb packaging stating that the bulbs are only suitable for off-road use. It’s a cover-all statement that simply means you shouldn’t use them to drive on roads.
When you think of the term ‘off-road,’ you might think of driving over untamed land. However, that’s not always what’s meant by ‘off-road use.’
It can also mean racing in a controlled environment on a private track, or it could mean simply a car showcase, where you add lighting to make it more attractive.
Some off-road lights are good for driving over difficult terrain. Others are purely aesthetic. You must be careful that you don’t buy a showcase bulb because you think it’ll help with driving in tricky conditions over wildland.
Why Are Off-Road Lights Illegal For Normal Use?
There are three main reasons why an LED bulb could be marked as not legal for road use. There could be others, but in almost every case, it falls into one of these scenarios.
The first is that the bulb is simply too bright. If the LED bulb has been designed with an off-road purpose in mind, such as for use in a light bar, then it will likely be a lot brighter than bulbs you’d use for your headlamps.
LED bulbs that are too bright are dangerous when used on a normal road, as you could easily blind oncoming drivers.
Even being dazzled for a brief second can spell disaster due to the lanes, barriers, and likelihood of other cars on the road – a blinded driver can easily crash.
There’s no consistent law across all states on the brightness of headlights for road use. Still, generally, they are limited to between 20,000 to 75,000 candela according to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.
You might be more familiar with Lumens – you should look for between 2,000 and 4,000. Many ‘off-road’ bulbs can be brighter than this.
These bulbs may instead be well-suited to off-road driving on private land. Off-road, you don’t have these same hazards.
There may be other, more natural obstacles to watch out for. Still, you’re less likely to encounter other drivers and therefore won’t dazzle them.
The second reason relates to the color of the LED bulb. Headlights range from a yellow light to a more blue-looking shade, although they are all technically a variant of white.
Older halogen bulbs tended to be more yellow, while LED headlights push into the cool white/blue end of the scale.
Colour temperature is measured in Kelvins and LED bulbs are generally between 4300K and 6000K.
But you can buy LED bulbs in the 8000K to 12000K range for a more blue shade. These bulbs aren’t suited to rough terrain driving.
Blue headlights are used to make your car more stylish in either a showcase or a private racing environment.
They don’t provide the level of visibility you need when driving. For optimum performance on or off-road, a white LED bulb is up to 6000K range is always best.
The final reason off-road only lights may be illegal could simply be that they’ve not been certified for road use.
Some bulb manufacturers won’t make their bulbs to the required quality, meaning they fail the certification tests to be road-legal.
Or they simply know that their bulbs are likely to be illegal for road-use for another reason, and so forego the tests in the first place.
It’s also worth noting that laws can vary depending on where you’re driving, particularly in the US where each state has its own authority, but generally, no LED bulbs are legal to be used as headlights.
You can use them as fog lights, as these aren’t as tightly regulated.
Some LED bulbs will be marked as off-road use only because they only pass certification in some states.
Obviously, it’s not unheard of for people to make long-distance drives across states, and so those bulbs can’t legally be sold for general road use.
Bear that in mind if you find an LED bulb that is marked as off-road only, but seems fine for your local laws – it might get you in trouble when you next take a road trip.
Can You Get Fined For Using Off-Road LEDs?
If you’re using off-road LED bulbs while driving on the road, you absolutely can be pulled over by the police and issued with a fine.
If you’re driving in the US, you’ll either get a ‘notice to correct violation‘ or a ‘notice to appear’.
A correct violation is where the officer that has stopped you believes you weren’t aware of the issue – in this case, you might argue you didn’t know your LED bulbs were only suitable for off-road use.
In this instance, you’re requested to fix the issue asap, provide evidence than you’ve done so, and pay a nominal amount to the courts.
How you need to provide that evidence will vary depending on your local laws.
If, however, you don’t correct the issue and replace your bulbs with road-legal options, or if you make it clear that you knew your LED bulbs were off-road only, but you ignored this, you’re more likely to get a notice to appear.
This works the same as a correct violation, except that your fine will be larger, incorporating court fees. You’ll likely have the violation added to your driving record, which could mean more severe penalties for further infractions later.
While it’s tough to find the average cost of a ticket specifically for LED headlights being illegal, the overall average cost of a ticket for all traffic violations in the US is $150.
I’m a huge advocate of LED headlights for their energy-saving and performance benefits, but you need to make sure you buy a reputable brand to minimize your chances of being fined.
You could get into trouble with off-road bulbs, not just with the law but also putting yourself at risk while driving.
Are you a true petrol-head who loves car showcases with their stylish blue headlights?
Have you ever been pulled over due to an issue with the bulbs you’ve used?
I’d love to hear your stories and answer your questions all around LED bulbs.