Written by Doris Donnerman (last updated April 28, 2011)
If both of the headlights or taillights fail to work, the cause is probably a dirty or blown fuse. Check your owner's manual to see where the fuse box is located. You'll normally find it on the side or back of the engine compartment, or under the dashboard inside the car. The fuses are color coded and the fuse box cover usually gives details of the relevant circuit.
Once you figure out which fuse controls the inoperable lights, unclip or pull the fuse from its terminals. If the wire down the center is broken, the fuse has blown and needs to be replaced. If not, the metal ends may need cleaning. Use a nail file or small piece of sandpaper to clean the fuse contacts, and then reinsert the fuse.
If you replace the fuse and it blows again when you turn on the lights, there could be a short circuit somewhere that is causing the fuse to blow. You'll get the best results if you take the car to a trusted auto repair shop and have them track down the problem.
If only one of your headlights or taillights goes out, then the problem isn't a fuse. Most likely one of the bulbs has burned out and needs replacing. Switch off the lights and remove the lens cover screws. Some lights need to be unclipped from the back of the light within the engine compartment (if it is a front light) or from the trunk (if it is a taillight). If there is rust or white corrosion inside the bulb holder, scrape it off with a nail file or piece of sandpaper. If the bulb filament is broken or the glass is discolored, replace the bulb.
Some cars have a light bulb for the license plate that matches the light bulb used in the taillights. In an emergency you can swap them, but replace them as soon as possible.
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