Replace Your Car’s Burnt-Out Bulbs in 4 Simple Steps

Rear light of blue car

Photo Antonio Larghi (Fotografia)/Getty Images

It's important to learn how to replace your car's taillight bulbs because they, and every bulb on the outside of your car, have an important safety function. This may seem obvious, but think about how often you see somebody driving around with a taillight out or with only one brake light. If both brake or taillights go out, then that's just an accident waiting to happen, especially in the dark. The fact is these little bulbs are often neglected—most people don't even know they've gone out until they're pulled over and slapped with a fine—and yet they only take a few seconds to ​​check.

Consider bulb-checking part of a series of simple maintenance functions you should perform on your vehicle on a regular basis. Just as you would your tire pressure and tread wear, you should make it a point to take five minutes every month to walk around your vehicle and make sure all your lights are in working order. If you find a dead bulb, grab a Phillip's head or other screwdriver and follow these simple steps to replace:

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Unscrew the Taillight Housing

Remove the tail light assembly screws.
Remove the tail light housing screws. photo by Matt Wright, 2008

The bulbs for all of your red, white, and yellow lights are hidden behind a colored lens. In most cars and trucks they're all in one place, but some vehicles used a few separate lens assemblies. Either way, the same process applies.

First, you need to remove the lens housing from the car. It's usually held in place with a few Phillips-head screws. Be sure to put them someplace safe. Now's not the time to lose a screw.

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Pull Out the Light Housing

Remove the assembly for bulb replacement.
Tail lamp assembly coming out. photo by Matt Wright, 2008

Once you have removed the screws and placed them someplace where you won't lose them, you can pull the entire bulb assembly, or housing, out of its hole. You won't be able to pull it out too far because of all the wiring holding it in, but you don't need much space. Just make sure you don't pull too hard on the wiring. Most assemblies will pull out as a whole, but some have a removable outer cover. These are even easier to work with, so if you have one consider yourself lucky.

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Unscrew the Bulb Holder

Removing the brake light bulb holder.
A quick turn and you have access to the bulb. photo by Matt Wright, 2008

The bulbs in your brake light or taillight assembly are held in place using a plug that holds the bulb. The plug also screws into the light assembly. Follow the wires to the back of the light that you need to replace—that's the bulb holder you want to unscrew, or, rather, pull out. It doesn't actually unscrew; instead, you only turn it a quarter turn or so to unseat it and pull it out.  

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Pull Out the Old Bulb

Remove the old bulb and replace.
Remove the old bulb and replace. photo by Matt Wright, 2008

Finally! You can see the light (or lack thereof) at the end of the tunnel—a dead bulb. Your bulb either pulls straight out (as most bulbs these days do) or requires a quarter turn like the bulb holder. Remove the bad bulb and put the new one in. Retrace your steps to put everything back in place and scratch this particular maintenance item off your list until next time. Now you're legal and safe.