Rear Fog Lights for Driving in the USA? What ARE They?

Please note:  All photographs here and in other articles on this website are taken from the passenger seat and with telephoto lenses, from much further away than the resulting images appear to show.  Safety is never compromised to get a photo.

Sadly, in the USA, matched pairs of high-intensity rear fog lights are not permitted. Indeed, if I ask American drivers about this – which I frequently do – they haven’t even got a clue what rear fog lights are.  So let’s get the answer out of the way:  Rear fog lights are red, they are very bright and they must only be used (to protect your ‘six’) in bad visibility.

The car near the center of this photo, which has a matched pair of rear, high-intensity fog lights illuminated — not brake lights — will clearly remain more visible than even cars nearer the camera that have only their regular rear lights to rely upon. Look at the two cars just beyond and to the left of the well-lit car: both of them do have their regular tail lights on yet are fading from view. The difference in safety is very obvious.  Copyright image.

To say that the absence of paired rear fog lights is a pity is an understatement because these things save lives. Admittedly, cars from Europe can be imported to the USA with just one rear fog light fitted – not the two they have when on European roads – but as I will show below, this is inadequate and less safe.

Here, a car in heavy spray and with just one rear fog light makes it obvious that in worse visibility or at a greater distance away, only the one light will remain visible. In those circumstances, it is much harder for a driver following your vehicle to correctly assess how big the gap is, between the vehicles, and that  makes the situation significantly less safe. (Had you spotted the tall truck, visible between the two cars the camera vehicle is following? )  Copyright image.

About 15 years ago, at an event in Manhattan, I asked some top-level, European vehicle engineers about this silly situation and was told that paired rear fog lights are not permitted in America “in case people mistake them for brake lights!” This reason would be hilarious if it weren’t so stupid.  Pairs of these very bright, additional rear red lights have been used in Europe for 3-4 decades, and not once – not even when I was a traffic patrol police officer investigating crashes – have people ever even implied to me that they confused rear fog lights with brake lights.  Once informed, even a child would instantly know the difference between them.

Let’s imagine a scenario: You are driving your sedan or SUV  in the half-light of dawn or dusk in very thick fog but its 20 miles to the next exit so you have no choice but to continue, by driving as slowly as the conditions dictate.  (Stopping on the shoulder in bad visibility can be even more dangerous than continuing, unless you were to cross right over the shoulder and drive on the grass, as far away from the asphalt as possible.)  Coming up behind you, driving too fast for the conditions, let’s say there is a fully loaded 18-wheeler semi-tractor-trailer; the driver is late and he’s in a hurry.  What happens next?  Do you want him to say “Those lights ahead are very bright.  I wonder whether they’re brake lights!<<joke>>  Or instead, do you want him to wonder what he has just rammed from behind because he didn’t see anything until it was too late and he slammed into your car and wrecked it… and perhaps you and your family!

The whole purpose of having rear fog lights (plural) is so that not only can other drivers see your vehicle from behind, from a much greater distance in fog, heavily-falling snow, thick smoke, heavy road spray or even sandstorms, but also – when there are two of the lights and not just one – they permit drivers behind you to gauge the distance between their vehicle and yours quite accurately. A single bright rear light often does not allow the same degree of awareness.

Once again, the more distant car, with its rear fog lights in use, is very obviously the most conspicuous. Copyright image.
A close-up of the distant vehicles in the photo above. Had you spotted the third car? Its near-invisibility could be lethal. Copyright image.

There is an answer to concerns about such bright lights being inappropriately used when there is good visibility and the lights’ brightness becomes a nuisance. It is, of course, called the law – specifically one that prohibits the use of rear fog lights unless atmospheric visibility (as opposed to just night-time darkness) is bad.  A similar law should already be in existence to prevent people having their front fog lights on except in the conditions described, but in most if not all states, no such law yet exists.  The very low mounting height of front fog lights means they create a serious amount of glare on clear nights, even though they don’t actually dazzle, yet in those conditions they serve no good purpose whatsoever.  That, however, is the subject for another article which will be linked here in due course.

So there you have it. High-intensity rear red fog lights have been around for at least one third of a century.  They are used in quite possibly all of the countries that have a much better road safety record than the USA.  Yet still, somebody in some little office took it upon him/herself to decree “not in America!”  That person or committee’s ill-informed decision has very likely cost a lot of Americans their lives or their limbs in thousands of bad-visibility crashes over the years.

How about it, NHTSA?  It is time for a re-think (preferably by reference to overseas best practices).  It would be so easy to use this inexpensive, additional equipment to make bad weather driving significantly safer.

Oh, and please don’t let Detroit force its penny-pinching refusals on you over topics like this. Contrary to their apparent belief, their profits are emphatically not more important than the lives of the people of this great nation.

Eddie Wren, CEO & Chief InstructorAdvanced Drivers of North America

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