How many experts does it take to change a lightbulb?


Very recently I had trouble with the daytime running lights on my car. Combination of a blown fuse and a blown bulb. I happened to be consulting the owner’s manual to get an idea on how to access to the headlamp assembly. It was pretty simple, removing a rubber cover, twisting out the old bulb and replacing with a new one. What astounded me was the stance of the manufacturer. Firstly, the manual stated (and I quote) “changing the vehicle bulbs requires considerable technical skill”. It suggested you have the car dealer do this if you “didn’t feel confident” (a statement which seems designed to create doubt in your mind).

The reality is that changing a bulb is (and was) child’s play. It is simple and straightforward. If this is the definition of “considerable technical skill” I would think only a handful of people on the planet would even be allowed to drive the car. I am hoping this is purely the usual risk aversion or liability reduction and not some cynical attempt to refer everything to the dealer for financial gain.

The owners manual has similar warnings about removing and recharging the vehicle battery (actually suggesting you should take the battery to the dealer to have them recharge it for you!). All of this, in my mind, is simple car maintenance and not something for which dealers should even be considered unless it happens to be convenient. I mean, it is not as if spare bulbs and battery chargers are hard to come by. Some countries even legally require the driver to carry a spare bulb kit with them in the car.

This attitude of fearing to do anything that is vaguely ‘technical’ in case it goes wrong is difficult to understand. Such people are prey to ‘experts’ who may well not even give the care and attention that the owner would. There is a very healthy sub-culture of men and women doing their own vehicle maintenance. A thriving industry of vehicle repair manuals (e.g. ‘Haynes’) and replacement parts testifies to this. This is especially so with motorcycles, where there are far fewer dealers and repair shops so owners sometimes have little choice but to tackle repairs themselves. There is also very much a culture of modifying and upgrading (and a ready supply of aftermarket parts and installation advice to support this). But this is character building and rewarding. Yes, you can get it wrong, but with a decent workshop manual and tools, you get there in the end. Supremely, it builds confidence and this then changes your perception of risk. In some respects, it gets put back in perspective.

For example, it is very easy, and understandable to be apprehensive or even horrified that anyone should change their own brake pads. I mean, it’s safety critical isn’t it? It would be reckless to tackle it yourself surely? But actually, once you have done it, you realise how easy it is to do (OK, a workshop manual, a torque wrench and some copper grease are really doing most of the work…). There are simple steps to check that the brakes work too, before you set off. But one might also argue that changing a wheel is also safety critical – you might forget to tighten all the wheel nuts; the car might collapse on you whilst changing the wheel. But most people would have a very different view of that – it’s a simple job to do, the alternative is we are stranded with a flat tyre, so we are prepared to accept the risk.

I am not saying that expert mechanics are not worth their weight in gold – a good one certainly is. If you know one, stick with them. I’m just saying that the practise of falsely labelling something as requiring exceptional skill (when it plainly doesn’t) undermines a person’s ability to grow, develop and get confidence through trying something new. I’m not suggesting that people should be reckless either but rather have a bit more back bone and appreciation of what they are capable of. It’s a thin line between being overconfident and knowing your own limitations. But better that than scared to change a lightbulb.