There’s often a lot of confusion that circles around the legality of driving with a broken tail light bulb versus driving with a broken tail light cover, both are illegal but not to equal degrees.
Can I Drive With a Broken Tail Light Cover?
You cannot drive with a broken tail light. Driving with a broken tail light cover not only exposes you to being pulled over and charged with a misdemeanor, but it also puts your safety on the road at risk. In the event of an accident, you may be found liable.
Driving with a broken tail-light cover obscures the visibility of your brake lights and indicators, if other road users cannot see when you are braking or about to turn then the likelihood of causing an accident dramatically increases, even if you were following general road safety.
This is why officers will pull you over and give you a ticket for driving with a broken tail-light cover regardless of how you were driving. It is classified as a road safety hazard and as such you assume liability for accidents caused while you were aware of your broken tail-light cover.
This assumed liability is the reason insurance companies strongly advise you not to drive if you have a broken tail-light cover because you will lose your ability to claim insurance for road accidents. Insurance companies will always assume you were liable for any rear-end collisions due to other drivers having obstructed vision.
Repeated driving or charges for driving with a vehicular defect such as a broken tail-light cover will increase your insurance premium as they will consider you a reckless driver with every subsequent charge you receive.
Between the increased likelihood of roadside accidents, being pulled over by the police, and the loss of insurance policy cover driving with a broken tail-light cover should be avoided as much as possible for your safety, financial security and criminal record.
Why shouldn’t you drive with a broken tail light cover?
Driving with a broken tail light is illegal and will result in you being ticketed for a road misdemeanor for placing the safety of other motorists at risk, with penalties depending on your state.
Driving with a broken tail-light cover is classified as driving with defective equipment in all states which carries fines of up to $1000 or up to one year in jail, as well as points on your license.
In Washington State, driving with a broken tail-light cover will get you a ticket for defective equipment under the Revised Codes of Washington (46.32.060), the law states
Any vehicle operating upon the public highways of this state and at any time found to be defective in equipment in such a manner that it may be considered unsafe shall be an unlawful vehicle and may be prevented from further operation until such equipment defect is corrected and any peace officer is empowered to impound such vehicle until the same has been placed in a condition satisfactory to vehicle inspection.
The necessary cost of impounding any such unlawful vehicle and any cost for the storage and keeping thereof shall be paid by the owner thereof.”
Generally, laws surrounding driving with a broken tail-light cover follow Washington State’s precedent, however, they mainly differ in the charges associated with the offence ranging from $1000 fines in Georgia to $250 in Virginia.
According to Federal Highway Traffic Regulations, you will get pulled over if any officer in any state sees the white of your tail light bulb emanating from your car while you are moving forward. Your brake lights and turn signals must be solidly either red, amber or both.
Article 3 of the Rear Lighting Equipment regulations of California dictate, “Taillamps shall be red in color and shall be plainly visible from all distances within 500 feet to the rear”, any violation of this due to damage will result in fines of $20 until a repair is made.
Failure to do so will result in a $300 penalty fee when you register your vehicle next.
On getting pulled over, the presiding officer may require your car to be impounded for being a risk to other motorists. However, if the damage is minor you may be let off with a verbal warning or citation.
As a general rule to avoid traffic violations and heavy fines, do not drive with a broken tail light.
Can you fix a broken tail light cover?
Thankfully you can fix a broken tail light with red or amber tape found in most hardware and auto shops.
Federal highway regulations state you may be pulled over for white light emanating from the rear of your car while driving forward, this means that the loophole to this is to cover any damage with approved crack filler or regulation colored (red or amber) tape.
Using crack filler is a better solution for legal compliance, you will need a screwdriver, crack filler, and syringe; this can be done by following these simple steps;
- Remove the plastic tail light lens (watch a YouTube tutorial for your specific car on how to do this).
- Turn the tail light over so you are looking at the inside.
- Prepare the crack filler as per the instructions of the bottle.
- Shake the bottle extremely well.
- Fill the syringe with the material, and then carefully fill in the crack using the syringe.
- Allow the filler to air dry before reapplying the cover to the car.
As long as the crack filler blocks out the white light from the bulb, you should be able to legally drive again.
Using red tape also works to cover the white light, but may not be legal depending on your state. In the state of Texas, for example, the tape is not a legal fix for a broken tail-light cover. Ensure you check the legality of tape as a form of repair in your state.
Some states allow you to only use tape as a temporary fix, such as California; you will be issued a “fix-it ticket” until you’ve proven to the county that you have properly repaired or replaced your broken-tail light cover.
Can you replace a broken tail light?
Yes, you can replace a broken tail light on pretty much all cars for between $200-$1500. Older cars can have them replaced at home, but newer cars may require a specialist to replace them.
Sometimes broken tail lights are too shattered to simply glue back together or tape up, in which case you’ll be forced to repair to comply with road laws.
Depending on the make and model of your car you can realistically expect to pay $200-$1500 in repairs. However, this cost depends heavily on the extent of the damage, what car you drive and whether you do the repairs yourself or not.
If the damage is simply a tail light cover replacement then don’t expect to pay more than $500 including labor. However, if the damage includes the bulb and wiring assembly then expect to pay $1500 or more.
Excluding labor costs you can actually pay as little as $100 or less to fix your tail light cover. Then you can simply repair the car yourself.
In the case of a 2015-2020 Ford F150, a tail light cover without a bulb can be purchased for as little as $50. If you don’t have tools, then the purchase of tools and materials for the replacement will total under $100.
For a 2013-2019 Toyota Corolla, you can expect to pay $50-$150 on a replacement tail light, then around $200-$250 for replacement with labor.
These prices will definitely fluctuate depending on where you are, what your local mechanics charge, and if you’re willing to use non-OEM parts.