The life of an American vehicular lighting fetishist is a frustrating, if glamorous one. This is because for some perverse mix of good intentions, over-regulation, under-regulation, and probably some kind of graft, American vehicle lighting standards have always seemed to be, well, worse than European standards. But there’s one way America is much, much better, and I’d like to take this opportunity to crow about it. That one way we’re better? Side marker lights.
Yes, motherfrienders, it’s time to talk about side marker lights, so wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, drop it and loudly announce to everyone around you that, hey, you’re about to read about side marker lamps, so you need complete silence and everyone better leave you the fuck alone.
I don’t care if your kid is on fire; someone else will handle it, because right now your mind needs to be focused on the SAE J592 standard and the combination reflectors-and-bulbs that form side marker lights.
Now, just to refresh people about why this particular subset of vehicular lighting is the lone thing that America can claim to be better about, let’s just go over some of the traits of the two standards:
America was stuck with just sealed beam lights well into the 1980s, while Europe has had custom shaped headlights since the 1960s. Europe allowed steerable headlights first, headlights under glass, and to this day allows for far more sophisticated adaptive lighting systems than America does.
Most noticeably to the general public, though, is that European standards require the safer-and-proven better amber rear turn indicators, while America remains one of the three or so backward-ass countries that still allow the red tail or brake lamp to just flash and pretend its a turn indicator.
If you want a little visual that encapsulates this idea, just look how the Citroën SM, with its under-glass, custom-sized-and-shaped and inner, steerable lights got dumbed-down for the American market:
So, there’s a lot of precedent here for America making strange, progress-adverse and just plain dumb vehicle lighting decisions compared to Europe.
But not about side marker lamps.
I suppose it’s possible some of you reading this may not be familiar with side marker lamps, a condition that repulses me, but one easily solved.
Here’s how the NHTSA describes side marker lamps in their July 1983 Technical Report titled An Evaluation of Side Marker Lamps for Cars, Trucks and Buses:
The objective of side marker lamps is to make a vehicle visible from the side to drivers of other vehicles, at night or at other times when there is reduced-visibility including dawn and dusk [sl, p. 5-13]. The advance warning provided by the lamps has the potential to enable drivers to avoid a collision when approaching one another at an angle, at night. The purpose of locating the lamps as close to the ends of the vehicle as possible is to reveal its length; the purpose of making the front lamp amber and the rear lamp red is to reveal the vehicle’s direction of travel.
This is a pretty concise explanation of the raison d’etre of side marker lamps: to make the car visible at night from the side, give a sense of the car’s length, and convey the direction the car is traveling by the colors of the lamps.
These are all valuable bits of information for a driver to have, and if the application of four little lights on a car can provide this even in the inky, cold blackness of night, then I’d say they’re an unquestionably Good Thing.
In the United States, side marker lighting became mandatory for the 1968 model year, and initially just required a light bulb, either clear or amber at the front, and red at the rear.
This early era saw some fun side marker experimentation, like the glorious firebird-shaped rear marker lamp of the Pontiac Firebird:
From 1968 to 1969 you could have either a bulb or reflector for marking the sides, but by 1970 the rule was changed so that all corners must have both bulb and reflector. This way the car would be able to visibly mark its sides whether or not it was on or off, so parked cars on dark roads could be seen by their reflectors, for example.
As an aside, the SAE J592 standard for side marker lamps seems to have an issue date of 1937, which is absolutely shocking to me, and even more shocking, the document describes the color of the front markers as yellow:
What the fuck? Yellow? Aside from a few ‘70s-era Fiats I can’t think of any car that has yellow side marker lamps, and on the Fiat 124s that seem to have them, I always just assumed they were faded or bad plastic. But all other side markers ever have been amber, which is orange, not yellow.
Another document clears this up a bit, stating
S6.1.2 Color. The color in all lamps and reflective devices to which this standard applies must be as specified in Table I. The color identified as amber is identical to the color identified as yellow.
...so all those amber-marker’d cars do seem to be legal after all. The 1937 part I need to research.
Okay, I think we get what side marker lamps are, and generally why they’re good. Incredibly, not only do European cars not have side marker light mandates, it appears that side marker lamps are actually illegal in Europe!
There’s a good summary of the European side marker lamp standards in a 1999 paper titled European Side-markers Effect on Traffic Safety:
Until 1993 European passenger car lighting installation legislation was based on the Directive 76/756/EEC, which dated from 1976 and prohibited use of side-marker lights as started in the USA with SAE J592e in 1937...Amber side-markers were required for long vehicles as trucks and trailers. In 1991 a renewal of the Directive came with 91/663/EEC, in which vehicles with a length of less than 6 meter length were allowed to have side-markers according to the European vision: amber colored on front and rear sides...the rear side-markers are allowed to be red in case of integration with the rear light units.
The early period of European side marker rejection is especially maddening, because carmakers actually had to go out of their way to plug side marker lamp holes in their European-market cars, leading to such goofball solutions like this:
Look at all of those ridiculous plastic plugs and extra badging and half-assed solutions to a problem that shouldn’t even exist. That Toyota Supra one is especially galling, because Toyota designed one of the coolest rear marker light treatments ever, giving the red lamp its own cool little pod, like an extra engine on a spaceship.
You still see the clumsy-plug method to this day on Euro-market cars, like on this current-gen Mazda Miata:
After 1991, Europe would let you have side markers if you really wanted them, but they had to be all amber, like the Mustang I saw in Munich recently:
The problem with the double-ambers is that they defeat one of the biggest features of American-style side marker lamps: being able to determine the front and rear of the car, from the side, in darkness. Why would you want the same color at both ends?
Honestly, nothing about the European approach to side marker lamps makes sense. They’ll require a middle-of-the-side-of-the-car turn indicator repeater light, but that’s it for side illumination.
The side of the car is the biggest part of the car! Why wouldn’t you want to provide it with some night visibility? What’s the advantage of making side markers illegal? Were they somehow hurting people? Undermining the public welfare? It’s all madness.
For a regulatory market that has done such careful, stellar work regulating the lighting at either end of a car, why are Europeans so blind to the middle?
Finally, there’s a part of automotive lighting where I can truly be proud to be an American. And despite my fierce patriotism, my dream is still for one glorious Global Lighting Standard, where the best ideas from all the drivers of Earth will be amassed into one numinous set of guidelines for vehicular lighting.
And in that dream set of lighting standards, America’s contribution should be our fantastic work on side marker lampery.
God Bless America, land of the amber and red. At least from the sides.