The one-headlight economic indicator

January 12, 2010Jon Brooks Comments Off


Over at yesterday, one user posted this comment:

It’s time for my micro indicator to broaden its horizons. For 20 years, I’ve interpreted cars with a burned out headlight as an indicator of economic decline. If I see three in the 25 minutes it takes me to get home, it’s still a recession. I’ve only tested this within a 50 mile radius of D.C.’s Beltway. Would love observations from other parts of the country.

So we wondered if anyone else has observed this. A Google search found these mentions of the phenomenon:

baselle’s Financial Diary

Two more recession observations – the grocery store clerks seem to be so much nicer than they have been for months. Disguising their Valentine’s Day hard sell perhaps, but it’s better than being surly. Tonight I noticed more cars driving on the road with one headlight.

Post on Asimov’s Science Fiction forum

Here on the West Coast I saw much worse fractures in the social/civic fabric — people shot dead before me on the steets in Oakland, crowds of twenty or so hookers on a popular corner, that sort of thing — during various economic downticks in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. All I’m seeing now is mostly stuff on the level of more people driving with one headlight out. That ain’t the apocalypse.

Jan. 2008 post on’s blog:

Over the years, I have noticed that when the economy is turning down, there is an increase in the number of cars with one headlight out. Why, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because people can’t afford to replace a burned out bulb, maybe it’s because folks are distracted with bigger worries. Or maybe my crackpot theory is simply a case of looking for broken headlights when I personally begin to worry about the economy. But I swear it’s true.

On a recent road-trip, I counted nearly a dozen one-headlight cars in one two-hour stretch from roughly Hood Canal to Madison Park–and that doesn’t count the car with no headlights. I just figured that driver was King County Council member Jane Hague.

You can hardly drive around town these days without seeing plenty of one-eyed autos. I even had a headlight go out recently. I replaced it, but even the new one is looking a little dim. I don’t take that as a very good sign.

From, an Irish message board site.

Anyone else notice the increased number of cars with only one headlight or backlight working at night ?

Makes you wonder if people are skimping on car servicing, how long it’ll take for their brake pads to wear out or the like.

In agreement:

Have noticed this myself, crazy carry on with the weather the way it has been lately hard enough seeing in the evenings with all the lights working.
Seems much worse this year I have to say, lots of one-eyed jacks around.
This was one of the little differences I noticed after returning to Ireland after 7 years abroad.. So many cars with knackered lights or fog lamps on.
Me too … after 21 years on the ‘continent’ it was one of the first obvious things that I noticed.
One evening in the space of half an hour I stopped two drivers for having no rear lights at all. Both of them gave the usual excuse of “they are just gone a few minutes ago” and both looked at me like I had two heads when I asked them “have you got any spare bulbs in the car?” Incredible. And yes one or more bulbs out does seem to be on the increase

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