Night driving has long been dangerous due to the glare of headlights that blind drivers approaching from the opposite direction. Therefore, headlights that satisfactorily illuminate the highway ahead of the automobile for night driving without temporarily blinding approaching drivers have long been sought. To correct this problem resistance-type dimming circuits, which decreased the brightness of the headlights when meeting another car, were first introduced. This gave way to mechanical tilting reflectors and later to double-filament bulbs with a high and a low beam, called sealed-beam units.

There was only one filament at the focal point of the reflector in the double-filament headlight unit of necessity. Greater illumination required for high-speed driving with the high beam, consequently, the lower beam filament was placed off center, with a resulting decrease in lighting effectiveness. From the 1950s, manufacturers equipped their models with four headlights to improve illumination.

In some cars, dimming is automatically achieved. This happens by means of a photocell-controlled switch in the lamp circuit that is triggered by the lights of an oncoming car. Larger double-filament lamps and halogen-filled lamp bulbs with improved photometrics permitted a return to two-headlight systems on some cars. At many places the law limits the total intensity of forward lighting systems to 75,000 candlepower (800,000 lux).

In most new automobiles, lowering front hood heights for improved aerodynamic drag and driver visibility reduces the vertical height available for headlights. Due to this, lower-profile rectangular sealed-beam units and higher-intensity bulbs, in conjunction with partial parabolic reflectors with reduced vertical axis, were adopted in the 1970s. In some cases, models featured full-size concealed headlights that were not visible until turned on. An electric motor linkage was used to rotate the lamp housing or a housing cover into proper position to supply lighting. Aerodynamic benefits were provided by this system only when the headlights were concealed.

In the 1960s, signal lamps and other special-purpose lights were increased in usage. Amber-colored front and red rear signal lights are flashed as a turn indication; all these lights are flashed simultaneously in the "flasher" system for use when a car is parked along a roadway or is traveling at a low speed on a high-speed highway. The law requires that marker lights that are visible from the front, side and rear be also present. Red-colored rear signals are used to denote braking, and, on some models, cornering lamps to provide extra illumination in the direction of an intended turn are available. These are actuated in conjunction with the turn signals. To provide illumination to the rear when backing up, backup lights are required.