Even before you learn to drive, you’re taught about the rules of the road, like when to safely merge lanes, what a yellow light symbolizes, and who has the right of way at a crosswalk. Another driving law you were probably taught by your parents: it’s illegal to drive with your interior dome lights on.
This may have come up while on a long road trip, or maybe you simply were looking for something and switched their car lights on, which resulted in your parents barking at you to turn them off right away or else they’d get pulled over. But can you really be ticketed for driving with the interior lights on in your car?
The truth is, if your parents told you it would be breaking the law to drive with the lights on in the car, you were probably lied to, however not without good reason. In most states it’s perfectly legal to drive with your interior lights on, but it’s not especially safe to do so.
Driving with your interior lights on, especially at night, can make it harder to see the road and may distract other drivers on the road which could lead to accidents. So although it’s mostly a myth that it’s illegal to drive with your interior lights on, that doesn’t mean you should go ahead and do it.
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Is it ever illegal to drive with your interior lights on?
No, states generally do not have laws that explicitly say it is illegal to drive with your interior dome lights on. That said, one of the reasons the “driving with interior lights on” myth has held so much weight over the years is because it’s not entirely untrue. And that’s because the reason you need to turn your interior lights on may be considered distracted or careless driving, which is illegal.
Distracted driving is defined as driving while engaging in other activities that distract the driver from the road. Distracted driving can harm the driver, passengers, and other drivers or pedestrians. If you need to turn your interior lights on because you’re doing something else in your car, that could result in a ticket.
For example, if a police officer sees you driving with your interior lights on and you seem to be rummaging around for something, or looking down from the view ahead of you, they may pull you over because you’re clearly not focused on the road. Whether or not you’d get a ticket for this depends on your local jurisdiction. So while the interior lights aren’t technically illegal, the reason you turned them on may be.
Why is it unsafe to drive with your interior lights on?
You were most likely cautioned against driving with your interior lights on because it’s dangerous, but not because it’s actually illegal (we don’t know why so many kids got the impression they would be breaking the law by turning on the lights in the car). But driving with your interior lights on can make it difficult to see on the road, and the light may reflect against your windshield.
Plus, if you need your interior lights on, you’re likely looking for something which means you’re not fully focused on driving. Distracted driving accidents can be extremely serious — distracted driving caused 2,841 deaths across the U.S. in 2018, according to The National Highway Safety Administration.
Your interior lights may also obstruct the view of drivers driving behind you, and could potentially lead to an accident. If you need to turn your interior lights on, you should consider the hazards around you and use your best judgement.
Can a distracted driving ticket affect my car insurance?
As we mentioned, driving with the interior lights on in your car isn’t illegal. However, if you get pulled over for distracted driving while driving with your interior lights on, you could potentially get a ticket.
For example, if you turn your interior lights on because you dropped your phone between your seat, a cop may pull you over if your car swerves into another lane, or if they see you holding your phone while driving (if using handheld devices while driving is illegal in your state).
Auto insurance companies take your driving record into account when calculating your premiums, so a ticket for distracted driving may increase your insurance rates. Insurers typically only check your driving history from the last several years, so if you received a ticket for distracted driving over five years ago your rates may not be affected, depending on your insurance company.
What to do if you need to turn the interior lights on in your car
If you need to turn your interior lights on for any reason — maybe you are looking for your water bottle or you need to find spare change for the upcoming toll — you should do your best to find a safe place to pull over first. By pulling over before turning your lights on, you’re ensuring your safety as well as the other drivers.
If your passenger needs to turn the interior lights on to find something, and you can’t pull over, you should ask them to wait until you get to an area where there aren’t as many cars or potential hazards around.