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Help! Brake lights wont' work

Sounds simple, change the bulb. The bulb not burned out. Check the fuse. Fuse is good. What do I check next?

Particulars: 1997 Chevy Lumina, too many miles to count. (Like my age is getting to be) It is a retired police car.

Right Turn signal works, Left works if you hold the turn signal arm at just the right place.

Note: there is only one bulb per side in this care. There is not a seperate bulb for brake and turn signal lights.

The light in the middle of the rear window works.

This is one that I think might stump the chumps. It has me.

If the high center brake light works, but the regular brake lights don’t, the problem is with the multifunction switch in the steering column. The high mount brake light circuit doesn’t pass thru the multifunction switch, but the regular brake light circuit does. And since there’s a problem with the turn signal, which is part of the multifunction switch, most likey that’s where the problem is.


Tester is probably correct, he usually is.

A couple of other possibilities:

  1. The vehicle probably uses a dual filament bulb for the turn signals and brakes. That’s two filaments in one physical bulb. Type 1157 is used in a lot of cars. But there is a Type 1156 single filament bulb that looks pretty much identical unless you look very carefully at the base and locking pins. It is supposed to be impossible to put an 1156 into an 1157 socket. But people sometimes manage to overcome the challenge and get one in. Fits sort of. Doesn’t work right. If someone has replaced your dual filament bulbs with similar single filament bulbs, having turn signals,but no brake lights is a possible outcome.

  2. The left and right tail lights are typically fed by a wire that comes back from the front of the car and are tied together by a wire under the truck lining material somewhere. If the wire from the front of the car to the tail lights breaks or is disconnected, both tail lights won’t work.

The replacement bulb, both bulbs have multi filaments in them. (2 at least, I think it might be 3 but am not sure without looking again.)

The multifunction switch sounds like the most likely culprit since there has been a problem with the left turn signal for a while.

How, or should I ask Can I change this out? Is it easy to get to?

Another thing to try is cycling the emergency flasher switch a few times and see if that clears the trouble. There may be a flakey connection inside it. The middle brake light doesn’t go through that switch and ties directly to the brake switch so it works ok.

You will need a tougher problem than that to Stump the Chumps here.

another possibility is that it’s got some sort of weird wiring that none of us here would know anything about. That’s not uncommon in ex-cop cars, as they tend to get modified not only at the factory, but by the police mechanics when they upgrade various systems. In an extreme case in MN, a cop mechanic rewired a police van and somehow managed to bypass the brake safety switch. The van got knocked into gear and ran someone over.

It’s entirely possible that some strange innovation of one of the vehicle’s modifiers has gone bad, which will be hard to trace.

I used to have Chevy Camaro with same problem. I could not find what was wrong so I drive it Metro-auto (importer). They fixed it and told problem to be damaged diode. Hope that helps.

You will need a service manual for this one. Some cars have a circuit in them that lights a light on your dash when a brake light burns out. It usually is the little icon that shows which door is open, if the rear brake light lights up on this icon when you step on the brakes, the bulb is burned out.

If it becomes unplugged, then neither the left or right light will light up, but the center light is not in this system so it will light. Not sure if your car has this but you would probably need a service manual to find out if it has it and where it is located. On a Honda, it’s inside the left brake light housing.

could it be the stop light switch instead???

Nope! If that were the problem, the high center brake light wouldn’t work.


Tester is the only one that has it right. The answer is evident in your question, if holding the turn signal lever the “right” way can make the filament light in your left rear turn signal. And your left rear brake light is out (they use the same filament) the problem will be solved with a new turn signal (multifunction) switch.

I have looked at the area under the dash. I removed the plastic cover for the area and I cannot figure out how to get to the multifunction switch. I did find the brake light switch. It seems to be somewhat loose.

The multifunction switch is $50 and looks impossible to get to without some kind of special tool and knowledge I do not posesss or know to learn. The brake switch is only about $9 and looks easy enough to change out.

I’m thinking I will change the brake light switch first and if that doesn’t work I don’t know how or if I will be able to change out the multifunction switch. If the Brake light switch doesn’t work it’s no big loss and a good thing to do anyway. especially since the problem is with the brake lights.

I wouldn’t bother with the brake light switch since the center brake light works. I am pretty sure the steering wheel needs to be removed for the multi-function switch. Which could be troublesome if airbag equipped and you don’t know about working with airbags.

It does have an airbag.

I need to get these lights fixed but I don’t want to spend a lot of money doing it.

The $50 for the harness is going to be bad enough. This car is far enough along to be one step away from the junkyard but for now it still runs.

How can I learn how to change this multifunction switch?

The symptoms you have are classic multifunction switch failure. I have no doubt this is what it is. Many cars in this GM car line have this problem. It surfaces in Luminas, Grand Prixs, Monte Carlo, and other midsize FWD cars of this era. If you have never dismantled a GM steering column and are uncomfortable dealing with the airbag, it’s best if you leave this job to a professional. It only pays an hour and a half to change the switch out, so the whole job will be $250, tops at most shops. If you do tackle this problem on your own, you should get a Haynes manual to guide you, then get some Torx sockets and drivers, a steering wheel puller, and a steering column lock plate remover. You will also need a good quality set of picks to dig out the ring that retains the lock plate. Plan on a whole day to do this if it’s your first time. This job really is a pain in the butt if you haven’t done a couple of them before. Most mechanics who have been in the field for more than a couple years have no doubt encountered a few of these, though. Good luck!

Ive had one other person tell me the same thing he said it was easy to fix but never told me how to fix it… i have 2 96 chevy lumina’s one mine and one my sisters and both are having the same problems with the break lights and turn signals … did chevy just have a bad few years when it came to the lumina’s or what? … Back to my question should i take it to a shop to get this fixed or is it something i can do on my own?