The symbolism of light


ECE, Pb, U: any number of symbols and abbreviations appear on automotive lamps and the packages. But what do they tell a driver exactly?

Let’s start with the lamp itself.

The most important symbol on a car lamp is the “E mark.” It confirms that the lamp meets the regulations of the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE). This approval applies to all of the organization’s 53 member states. The number after the “E” indicates the country that issued the approval. In this case, the number 1 stands for Germany. A 2, for instance, would indicate French approval. The E mark is followed by the individual approval number.

Some lamps additionally bear the letters “DOT.” This means they can also be used in the USA and countries with similar rules. The abbreviation stands for “Department of Transportation.”

The letter “U” stands for ultraviolet. Logically, however, it indicates that the lamp emits virtually no UV light. Experts therefore refer to the symbol as the “UV cut.”

Next to it on the lamp is the code for the lamp type, for example H4 or H7 for halogen lamps, or D1 or D2 for xenon bulbs. Manufacturers also affix their brand name to a lamp and usually an internal product designation.

The packaging bears additional symbols and pictograms, of which these are the most important:

Pb stands for plumbum, the Latin word for lead. The symbol confirms that the lamp contains no lead. This has  always been true for halogen lamps, apart from trace amounts in some of the glass grades used. However, signal lamps for blinkers etc. have soldered spots that contained up to 40 percent lead prior to 2004. Since then, the solder has indeed been made only of tin. You will also occasionally see the abbreviation “RoHS,” indicating that the product complies with the European Hazardous Substances Directive. The letters stand for “Restriction of Hazardous Substances.”

“Lights out!,” is what this symbol advises. Of course it does not mean when driving the car, but rather while changing the bulb.

This well-meaning tip appears on halogen lamps and is a recommendation that you wear protective glasses when changing a bulb. The reason: these light sources are filled with gas under pressure. Under certain circumstances, the glass bulbs on burned out lamps can become brittle from long hours of use and explode. A pair of glasses protects you against dangerous pieces of broken glass.

This pictogram serves a similar function, advising you to wear gloves when changing a lamp. On top of providing added protection against glass shards, (clean!) gloves also keep the glass bulb from getting contaminated with sweat from your hands, which when exposed to heat can damage the glass bulb and the reflector.

That explains this diagram as well.

And since we’re talking about heat, this self-explanatory symbol says what every child should know: light bulbs are hot when they’re on.

Even though it comes up only rarely in practice: lamps with cracked bulbs should not be connected to a vehicle’s electrical system, as this symbol reminds us.

Like all pictograms, those on lamps are sometimes difficult to understand. In most cases, I personally would prefer a warning written in plain language, for instance in English. But automotive lamps are exported all over the world, so the packages have a lot of other symbols too, which are only of importance in specific countries. These include, for instance, CCC for “China Certificate of Conformity” or the Russian PCT mark in Cyrillic letters.

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