What’s The Difference Between Headlights And Parking Lights?

Parking lights serve a different purpose compared to other lights. But, even I used to get them mistaken for running lights. And, most drivers I see nowadays are using parking lamps wrong!

If you are like me, you may have thought about why parking lights are called that. Are they specifically for parking? And what’s the difference between regular headlights and parking lights?

So, I researched and found a brief history of these lights. Turns out, parking lights used to be in our cars for a specific reason back then. Below, I provided all the information I could get from trusted sources about this topic. Let’s get started:

A brief comparison between parking lights and headlights

Let me start by saying that headlights and parking lights are clearly different. Even though modern cars tend to have parking lights in the headlight assembly, they have significant differences.

If you are in a hurry, look at this short table I made below. It will tell you the comparisons between the two lights in the shortest time:



Parking lights


Primary illumination

Once used as an indication for parking in poorly lit areas. Now exists as supporting lights for specific situations.


Front end of the vehicle

Front end of the vehicle, on the side of regular headlamps


2000-4000 on average

700 on average


Larger by size, more wattage, and lumens

Very small, insignificant wattage and lumens


Headlights are required by law in the US

Parking lights are optional by law in the US except in Colorado


Headlights are located on the front end of a vehicle. They act as a primary source of light at night. Even though headlight assemblies can contain multiple bulbs, actual headlights are the brightest ones with a wide beam.

Parking lights are usually on the same assembly as headlights. They can be on the side or right under the headlights. These lights have much lower brightness and can be white, amber, or yellow.


What is the use of parking lights?

Before, parking lights had a specific purpose. You guess it! They were used for parking.

Parking lamps were excellent lights that were brighter than parking lights that exist now and drained a lot less battery than headlights.

The purpose of these lights was to let other drivers know that a car is parked on the side of the road. So, for example, if you needed to park your car on a poorly dim highway, you had to keep the parking lights on. Again, this is a safety measure to let other vehicles know you have parked there. And since roads were not illuminated that well back then, these lights were more than a necessity.

Nowadays, parking lights serve an entirely different purpose. For example, you can use your parking light when your car’s headlights burn out. Turning on parking lights in this scenario will help other drivers know the outline of the vehicle approaching them.

Imagine if the right headlight of your car burns out. Driving in a poorly dim road, your car may appear like a motorcycle to oncoming vehicles. Such occurrences can lead to accidents. Therefore, turning on the parking lights can prevent this by letting others know the outline of your car.

In Germany, you can turn your parking light on only one side. This is done to prevent car batteries from draining.

Laws regarding headlights and parking lights

Headlights are mandatory by law in the US. According to the requirement of most states, you must turn on your car’s headlights 30 minutes after sunset while driving and 30 minutes before sunrise. This sunset-sunrise rule is applicable anywhere in the United States.

Regarding parking lights, they are an optional choice for most states. However, some states have specific laws concerning these lights. They are the following:

Colorado: Parking lights are mandatory to use in Colorado when you park your vehicle alongside the roadway. The state’s law requires drivers to keep the parking lights on from sunset to sunrise in specific parking conditions.

Washington, DC: You cannot use parking lights while driving in the District of Columbia.


Primary differences between parking lights and headlights

  • Headlights have larger bulbs with more brightness. On the other hand, parking lamp bulbs tend to be much smaller with a lot less lumen output.
  • Parking lights are optional to use in most states. However, headlights are mandatory by law.
  • Many parking bulbs can be amber aside from yellow and white ones. Headlights can only be yellow and white.
  • Headlights are used as a primary source of light in a vehicle. Nowadays, parking lights are used for emergency illumination when one of your headlights burns out.
  • Parking light laws differ between the US and many European countries. However, headlight laws remain mostly the same.

How to turn your parking lights on

A small button behind your car’s steering wheel can turn the parking lights on or off. Here’s a video explaining it:

Final Note

From now on, I hope you will use your parking lights as they were meant! Even though these lights were used way differently back then, they are nothing but assisting lights now in the US.

As a driver, It’s important to understand all the different types of lights your car has (front or rear) and their purposes. Although parking lights are not that significant in terms of uses, this guide may help you not to misuse them.

If you have read this far, I have some questions for you! First, what did you use to think parking lights were for? Have you had any interesting stories regarding parking lights? Let me know!

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