Are your spotlights legal? We look at if and how legislation in South Africa has changed
When we investigated the legality of LED lightbars on your 4x4 two years ago (Drive Out #87), there was a lot of confusion on 4x4 internet forums and Facebook pages regarding the issue. What exactly did the law say, how widely was it enforced, and were there any signs of proposed legislation to address our outdated road regulations? The answer from specialists such as Alta Swanepoel, a Pretoria-based lawyer specialising in road legislation, and Darren Magerman, Western Cape regional manager for Dekra Automotive, was that a lightbar on your vehicle on a public road could definitely land you a fine. Adam Eiseb, head of the Namibian Traffic Management Services, confirmed that this was also the case in our neighbouring country. For many vehicle owners things are still unclear around the legality of other lights on their vehicles. And with technology improving almost daily, there’s a lot of confusion around whether or not that bright new set of HID spotlights or LEDs is going to land you in trouble at the next roadblock or border post. To get some clarity on this, we spoke to a vehicle light importer and again to Dekra, a company specialising in roadworthiness tests, to find out if there have been any changes to our road traffic legislation.
NEW LIGHTS, OLD PROBLEMS
Ironman 4x4 Africa has been supplying all sorts of lights to the 4x4 market in South Africa for years. So the company’s director, Mic van Zyl, is totally clued up when it comes to the laws around it – and in sparring matches with the authorities around updating these laws. Mic says his company sells four types of lights and that the legislation for each of them differs:
“Halogen lights are mostly bought because of their low price and not for the strength of the beam,” says Mic. These lights are usually not much stronger than a vehicle’s standard factory lights and therefore the legislation around halogen lights is not very complicated either. “If you fit an extra set of halogen lights at the front of your vehicle, they basically have to have the same wattage as your vehicle’s original lights,” he explains. “According to the law, your vehicle’s lights can not be stronger than 75 W, so your halogen lights can’t be stronger than that either.”
HID (high intensity discharge) lights are a much newer technology than halogen. These lights don’t have glowing tungsten filaments like a “normal” globe. HID lights work with electrodes that create light through an ignition process in a mixture of gas and metal salts. The wattage is mostly quite low (about 35 W) but the light penetration and intensity is very high, explains Mic. “In my opinion these are still the best lights on the market. A good LED lights up about 400 metres ahead, but a good HID can shine a thousand metres! That’s why they’re my favourite lights for off-roading. The light penetration in a pitch-black piece of veld is just so much better.” But things can get confusing with HID lights, he adds, since there isn’t specific legislation dealing with them yet. “HIDs can be finicky, and that can get you into trouble with the law. “HID lights don’t react as quickly as halogen. They take a second or two to brighten and the process takes a lot more than 35 W to start. For that reason, HID lights need a good starter pack and thick wiring to take the high initial power load.” If you put a low-quality product in or make use of an installer that doesn’t put in the correct wiring, your lights won’t work like they should. And it’s then, when only one of them switches on or shorts out every few seconds, that the cops are going to give you trouble. “HID lights don’t like to be flashed either and it can happen that one of them stops
LED lights are legal, but be aware of the light’s intensity as well as the height and angle at which it casts its light.
working because of it, which a traffic officer will flag. You basically have to be away from public roads and other vehicles so that you can switch on your HIDs with your brights and keep them on,” he says. Although there’s no specific legislation around HID lights, you still have to stay away from replacing your vehicle’s factory globes with HID ones, Mic warns. “Your vehicle’s lights were designed as a unit, with very specific tolerances to be able to handle the light intensity of the globe and reflectors that reflect it correctly on the road. If you take those halogen globes out and replace them with HIDs, there’s a really big possibility that you’ll end up with bad light reflection and refraction. If the authorities catch you at night with lights shining in all directions and blinding oncoming traffic, you’re going to be in trouble.” LED lightbars and lights
While some countries have updated their laws to accommodate LED lightbars, South Africa is still a long way from that. “In the US and Australia, regulations have started to appear to make way for these new technologies,” says Mic. “In the Australian state of Queensland you are even allowed lights on your roof rack now. But we’ve been talking to authorities here in South Africa for over a year to adapt our legislation – at least for one lightbar – without success.” So for now, having an LED lightbar on your vehicle when you drive on a public road remains illegal in SA. And the reason, as explained by Alta Swanepoel previously, remains the same: All the lights at the front of your vehicle must be at equal distances from an imaginary central line. To understand where this line sits, draw an imaginary line from top to bottom through the badge on your vehicle’s grill. That’s the central line and lights must be at equal distances to the side of it. This regulation creates an issue for solid LED lightbars and many vehicles with them are rejected at testing stations because they are fitted as one long light over this central line on a bull bar or grill. But Mic adds that people need to differentiate between the legality of the lights and their use, as some people he encounters misunderstand that. “LED lightbars are not illegal, it’s the use that’s the issue,” he explains. “There’s nothing prohibiting you from fitting them to a tractor, farm bakkie or your dune toy. Having them on a vehicle on a public road is the problem.” Unfortunately the reality is that a vehicle’s factory lights are simply not good enough in every application you might have for them, he says. “If you’re driving on a pitch-black dirt road or a deserted gravel road far from civilisation you want to see as far as possible. And where animals might appear unexpectedly from the grass you need lights that can illuminate the area around your vehicle better than its standard lights. I’m not saying we want authorities to allow 20 lights that are so strong they melt the bullbar, but we’d really like the government to come up with modern, sensible laws.” In the meantime, Ironman’s solution is two separate LED lights that you can mount at the front of your vehicle. “They’re legal since they sit to the sides of the central line and they work really well. LEDs spread their light closely around your vehicle. That helps you to spot animal eyes much quicker, before they jump in front of your vehicle.” LED lights also last longer than other lights and use very little power. “The new ones are also much better than the originals at casting a light beam at a distance,” he adds. “And the more power your lights need, the less fuel you use, of course.” The law isn’t very restrictive when it comes to LEDs either. “There isn’t actually any specific legislation for them around light beam or intensity, so the authorities aren’t likely to give you trouble with a quality, approved product.”
GENERAL RULES TO REMEMBER
Mic has the following dos and don’ts for lights at the front of your vehicle: • You are not allowed any more than six lights. That doesn’t include indicators or daytime running lights that form part of the headlight casing. • You must have an equal amount of lights (but remember, the officers count light casings and not individual LEDs).
No lights are allowed over the imaginary central line of your vehicle. No light may protrude above your bonnet. You can’t mount lights on your roof rack or roof. A few exceptions have been made – for the previous Nissan X-Trial, Jeep Cherokee KJ and Toyota FJ Cruiser – but that was because those vehicles were designed that way. Even if you drive one of these vehicles, don’t try to replace those lights with an aftermarket product. Mic drives the previous FJ and got a fine for doing just that. Any extra lights need two switches: one to switch them off separately from the other lights and one to switch them on with the brights. So your extra lights can only be switched on with the brights or not at all. You can’t have any coloured aftermarket lights on your vehicle. Yellow (like the old halogen fog lights) are permissible, as are the newer HID lights that emit a bright white that looks slightly blue.
ADVICE FROM DARREN MAGERMAN FROM DEKRA IN CAPE TOWN
Replacing the globe in your vehicle’s standard headlight casing with HIDs will definitely get flagged at the testing station. LED lights are legal, but be aware of the light’s intensity as well as the height and angle at which it casts its light. “A sharp testing official will even check if your lights have the necessary SABS approval on them,” he says. If you’re unsure about any of this, take your vehicle with its new lights to an auto electrician like Motolek. If you’ve fitted new lights, take your vehicle to a testing station to make sure the lights cast their beams correctly. Dekra tests specifically for alignment, height and roadside illumination. Lights that shine too high or skew will get you in trouble (not to mention they’ll be blinding motorists driving at high speed towards you).