Some car features have been around for so long that most people take them for granted. A perfect example of that is the red tail lights you see on the back of every car, truck, and even motorcycle on the road. But have you ever stopped to wonder, “Why are tail lights red?”.
Tail lights are red because that color is universally understood to mean ‘danger’. It grabs other drivers’ attention and urges them to be cautious, whether it’s day or night, and even from afar. Legally, red tail lights have been standardized worldwide through the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic which most countries follow.
Keep reading through this guide to discover more about why tail lights are red and whether or not you can change them to any other color.
Why Are Vehicle Tail Lights Red?
Overall, the tail lights on modern motor vehicles are red in color to make roads safer. That’s why they’ve been a standard feature on cars for decades, required by law worldwide.
Still, here are 5 specific ways that red tail lights keep drivers and passengers alike safe on the road.
#1 Red Means Danger
Every color you can imagine has one or more universal meanings. These meanings, which have been studied through Color Theory, are the same across most cultures and time periods. As such, they require little or no explanation to be widely understood.
The color red has several meanings, but it’s most notably understood to communicate danger. Interestingly enough, that understanding isn’t just something that exists among humans.
Throughout nature, you can find plenty of examples of red being used to scare or deter predators who assume the red prey, plants, or fruit they want to eat is dangerous to them.
So, the first answer to the question “Why are tail lights red?” is that they communicate to the cars behind that they’re facing danger. That’s especially true when the vehicle slows down or is completely stopped on the road.
Thanks to the universal understanding that red means danger, people don’t need to be told that they should be cautious when approaching red tail lights.
The color red also has another benefit that makes it ideal for tail lights: it’s very good at grabbing other people’s attention.
You’ll notice that red has the same effect in other areas of our daily lives. For example, a person wearing red will stand out very clearly in a crowd.
That effect also lends itself to tail lights. So even if other road users are somewhat distracted, the color red has the power to snap them back to attention when they see it ahead of them.
#3 Recognizable From Afar
As you might already know, safety on the road also depends on your ability to see far into the distance. The further ahead you notice a potential danger, the more time you have to react accordingly.
Red tail lights provide that warning for other drivers on the road from afar. In other words, the effects of #1 and #2 that you saw above don't just happen when you’re within a few feet of the car in front of you.
Instead, those red tail lights will capture your attention and warn you of danger even from long distances away.
#4 Clear During Day And Night
No matter the time of day, the color red remains highly visible to other road users. That’s why it remains the ideal color for tail lights on motor vehicles, including cars, trucks, and even motorcycles.
On top of that, the color also stands out in low-visibility conditions, like during storms.
By being very easy to see, red tail lights ensure that drivers can maintain a safe distance between vehicles and slow down when necessary.
#5 Required By Traffic Laws
Lastly, another reason that tail lights are red is that traffic laws require them to be that color. As a result, all auto manufacturers must use the standardized red tail lights in the vehicles they produce.
That means all cars on the road will have the same red tail lights that are understood by all, preventing any confusion and keeping roads much safer overall.
When Were Red Tail Lights Invented?
Tail lights have been around since 1915, though automakers back then had very few requirements to adhere to. For starters, tail lights weren’t even red back then, but they were white or yellow.
However, it was only later on, in 1949, when the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic came up with international standards for car light colors.
The convention, which still influences the road laws of countries worldwide, determined that a car’s front lights should only be white, while the tail lights should only be red.
Even though it can be pretty challenging to determine precisely when red tail lights became a universal feature for automakers worldwide, we can look to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic as a crucial and influential point in the history of red tail lights.
Do Car Tail Lights Have To Be Red?
Yes, car tail lights are universally red in color. That means local road laws in all countries require auto manufacturers to include red tail lights as standard features. Those same laws also prohibit drivers from changing their tail lights to any other color.
The only difference in some parts of the world is that local laws might require a third red tail light for all vehicles. So, while most cars have red tail lights on either side of the vehicle’s rear, a third one goes to the top of the rear windshield.
Can You Have White Tail Lights?
No, road laws worldwide require your tail lights to be red and not any other color. Besides that, changing your tail light to white could be very dangerous.
Remember: your reverse lights are white in color. That’s because white lights communicate to others that the vehicle is coming in their direction.
As such, white tail lights will cause plenty of confusion as vehicles behind you will think you’re about to reverse into them.
Cars are highly customizable, with very few parts that you can’t change to your liking. Unfortunately, however, your red tail lights are not a part you can ever change. For starters, road laws require those lights to be red and not any other color.
Red-colored tail lights also offer plenty of benefits, all of which contribute to your safety and other road users around you.