Parking lights: What are they, and when should you use them?

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Have you ever driven in a dark parking lot at night and almost hit a parked car because you didn’t see it until the last minute? Or have you come out of a concert and strained your neck looking for your own car in a crowded, dark garage? Situations like these demonstrate why properly using your parking lights is so important. Though often overlooked, those small front and rear lights outfitted on vehicles serve a valuable safety purpose. Parking lights provide an illuminated outline of your car to prevent accidents when visibility is poor. But when exactly should you turn on parking lights, and what function do they serve compared to headlights? Knowing when and how to use parking lights on your vehicle can prevent collisions, increase safety, and possibly even save lives. This article will explore what parking lights are, how they differ from standard headlights, when to activate them, parking light regulations, and how to use them correctly. Keep reading to learn more about this critical but underused nighttime vehicle safety feature. With the tips in this guide, you can use parking lights the right way and stay safe. Let’s shine a light on proper parking light use!

What are parking lights?

Parking lights, also known as side marker lights, are low-intensity illuminating lights mounted on the front and rear of a vehicle that switch on automatically when the vehicle is parked in dim lighting conditions. Parking lights are located on the corners and sides of the front and rear bumpers. They are designed to designate the location and perimeter of a parked vehicle during nighttime hours or in low visibility situations caused by rain, fog, or other weather events. Parking lights are dimmer and illuminate a smaller area compared to standard headlights, but are bright enough to identify the position of a stationary vehicle to prevent accidents with moving vehicles and pedestrians.

How do parking lights differ from headlights?

While parking lights and headlights both provide visibility and illumination, there are several key differences between the two types of lights. Headlights are intended to illuminate the road and area in front of a moving vehicle at night. They project a beam much farther down the road to reveal hazards and provide safe driving visibility. Headlights shine white or yellow light and are available in low and high beam modes. High beams project farther and are used when no oncoming traffic is present. In contrast, parking lights are solely meant to outline a stationary vehicle. They emit a dimmer, amber or white glow focused on the sides rather than straight ahead. Parking lights do not have adjustable beams; they shine constantly at one brightness level. It’s worth mentioning that headlights utilize more wattage and electricity to power their brighter light.


Illustration of a Vehicle with Parking Lights On - Enhancing Visibility During Low-Light Situations

Illustration of a Vehicle with Parking Lights On – Enhancing Visibility During Low-Light Situations


What’s the primary purpose of parking lights?

The primary function of parking lights is to enhance the visibility and noticeability of a parked car, truck, or other vehicle at night by outlining its perimeter. This helps prevent accidents and collisions when other vehicles are moving in the vicinity. Since parked cars without lights are almost invisible in the darkness, illuminated parking lights allow drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians to discern the vehicle’s general location and dimensions and avoid running into it. Parking lights also clearly indicate that a vehicle is currently stopped/parked rather than in motion on the roadway.

When should you turn on the parking lights?

There are many common situations where turning on your parking lights for increased visibility and safety is advisable. For example, parking lights should be switched on in the following situations:

  • Overnight parking on a dark or poorly lit street where your car may not be easily seen
  • When stopped on the shoulder of a highway or road at night while waiting for assistance
  • Parking in an unlit parking lot, garage, or other area at night
  • Stopping on a roadway at dusk when using headlights would overly glare oncoming traffic
  • Parking in a no-outlet street or other confined areas with low visibility
  • Waiting in your parked car for someone in an unlit area at night
  • Pulling off the road due to fog, heavy rain, or snow obscuring visibility
  • To designate your position when stopped near a road hazard or accident site

How to turn on parking lights in different vehicles?

The method to activate parking lights varies depending on vehicle make and model. Check your owner’s manual to locate the parking light switch in your car or truck. Some common methods of activation include:

  • Rotating the headlight knob to the first “Park” or “Side Marker” position
  • Pressing a button on the dashboard or control panel labeled “Parking Lights”
  • Flipping on your headlights but not turning on the high beams
  • Pulling the headlight lever part way out to the first stop position
  • Turning on the daytime running lights if they also illuminate parking bulbs

What are the benefits of using parking lights?

Opting to use your parking lights provides much greater visibility and safety compared to leaving your parked vehicle completely unlit after dark. Without any lights on, your car can easily blend into dark surroundings, making it almost invisible to pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists driving by. This causes a collision hazard. So, activating your parking lights provides several safety advantages, such as:

  • Making your parked vehicle visible to prevent crashes in low light conditions
  • Allowing other drivers to discern your car’s location and size when passing
  • Indicating   to others that your car is stopped and not moving on the road
  • Providing some illumination of the area around your car for safety when getting in or out
  • Letting other motorists see you so they avoid colliding when backing up or pulling into/out of spots
  • Saving battery power at night compared to using headlights

When is it unsafe to use parking lights while driving?

While parking lights are helpful in certain stationary situations, they should not be used instead of headlights when driving. Using only parking lights while operating a moving vehicle can create unsafe conditions. Parking lights do not project light far enough ahead to spot potential hazards and obstacles. They also do not provide sufficient illumination of the road and surrounding area when driving at night. You should avoid relying on parking lights any time you are driving above low speeds, such as on roads with speed limits higher than 25-30 mph. Additionally, parking lights alone cannot cut through dense fog, heavy rain, snow, or other precipitations the way proper headlights can. If visibility is poor while driving, use headlights on low beams rather than parking lights. Only use parking lights when your vehicle is stopped or parked in appropriate low-visibility conditions, not as a headlight substitute when driving at night.

Do parking lights drain a car’s battery?

Parking lights use less electrical power than headlights, so utilizing them when parked overnight or in low visibility will have minimal battery drain compared to leaving headlights on. This is because parking lights use smaller, lower-wattage bulbs that simply outline the vehicle’s shape rather than light up distances. Parking lights draw significantly less power than headlights. Leaving parking lights on for a single overnight parking situation or short-term use will not significantly drain the battery. However, it’s still wise to avoid leaving them on unnecessarily for multiple nights in a row, as the small electrical load can accumulate over days or weeks. But for occasional short-term use, parking lights will preserve more battery charge than headlights and won’t cause major battery drain concerns.


As we’ve explored, parking lights serve an essential visibility function for parked vehicles at night. Outlining a car’s perimeter prevents accidents in low-light conditions and makes vehicles more conspicuous to pedestrians and other drivers. Now you know that parking lights are separate from headlights, shine less brightly, and should only be used when stopped. You’ve learned when parking lights are recommended, how to turn them on for your vehicle, and safety precautions like avoiding their use when driving.

While parking lights are simple, keeping them in mind and using them properly whenever warranted gives an extra margin of safety. We all have a role to play in preventing accidents and collisions. Something as basic as illuminating your parked car at night protects you and others from harm. So next time you’re stopping on a dark roadside or pulling into an unlit lot at night, take a second to switch on your parking lights. With this simple act, you just might save a life. Let’s light the way to safer travel for all.

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