Runaway Vehicle Fatalities Such as the Death of Actor Anton Yelchin are Frequently and Easily Avoidable

A law suit was settled last week in death of Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin, who was crushed when his own SUV rolled on a slope and pinned him against the mailbox he was checking.

Sadly, however, deaths like this where a vehicle rolls away despite having ostensibly been left in ‘Park’ are all too common and actually have a  lot to do with the endemic incompetence of the majority of people who write state drivers manuals throughout the USA and yet have little-to-zero expertise in the subject of best-practise safe driving.

Photograph of Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin
Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin at The Voice Awards, 2011. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

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Should we Call them Road ‘Accidents’ or ‘Crashes’? It’s Actually an Important Distinction!

The incidents which generations of people have grown up calling “road accidents” or “highway accidents” are wrongly named — they need to be referred to as crashes or collisions — but if this sounds like nothing more than silly word-play and semantics to you, read on, because there is a very important reason behind it.

Photo of an SUV in Florida narrowly avoiding a collision with a semi tractor-trailer that rightlytly had to go wide in order to make a sharp right turn and which had been signalling the intended turn correctly for plenty of time. Classic unattentive driving by the person in the SUV.
The driver in this SUV in Florida brakes hard and narrowly avoids a collision with a semi tractor-trailer that correctly had to go wide in order to make a sharp right turn and which had been signalling the intended turn for plenty of time. Sadly, this was classic and potentially lethal inattentive driving by the person in the SUV.   (Copyright image.)   [1]
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Belief that Speed Doesn’t Cause Crashes is Untrue & Deadly

Many drivers ardently believe that “speeding alone does not actually cause crashes,” but even though the over-simplification contained in that phrase is not totally inaccurate (see below), in real life-and-death terms it is both misleading and deadly…

Photograph of a car passing a 65mph speed limit sign on a highway.
Breaking speed limits in the USA is an endemic issue, something that many drivers even take to be a right — that they can go x-number of miles per hour over the speed limit without getting a ticket. (Copyright image.)

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Poor Visibility Even When Driving in Bright Sunshine (No.1)

The photo below is intended to be the first of several images, over a period, to show that even in bright sunshine, visibility for drivers and other road users can actually be very poor, therefore the best safety can be achieved by driving with low beam headlights on at all times.  (Daytime Running Lights, or DRLs, are as safe as long as they illuminate not only the front lights but also the rear lights too.  See our previous article for details on this important subject.)

Photograph of vehicles obscured from sight even on a beautifulo, sunny day, in this case by salt dust, churned up by the wheels of vehicles.
Despite the beautiful sunshine on this very cold day, visibility was significantly reduced by what can only have been the dust from pulverised road salt that was being thrown up by vehicle wheels. Coming towards the camera, on the other side of this interstate highway, are *five* cars and a semi-tractor-trailer, but cars 3, 4 and 5 — only a couple of hundred yards away and travelling around 100 feet-per-second — would be harder if not impossible to see if not for the fact that all three of those drivers are very wisely using their headlights. Well done, them! Copyright image.

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Official Advice About When to Use Headlights is Nonsense!

In many states in the USA and in certain countries around the world, dreadfully unsafe guidelines still exist which say that headlights need not be switched on until half an hour after sunset and can be turned off again half an hour before sunrise.  This so-called advice is — and always has been — dangerous garbage.

Photo of two pedestrians dangerously standing half way across a road in very low light.
Two darkly-clothed pedestrians dangerously standing in the middle of the road (in the center, left-turn-only lane) in dawn light. Technically — because it was after dawn on this very gloomy winter morning and it wasn’t raining, vehicle drivers were not obliged by law to be using headlights, so imagine these cold, wind-blown pedestrians trying to get to work and not noticing an approaching vehicle with no lights. Not using headlights in low light is insanity but many drivers do it, and even more stupidly, the law allows it (in this case, in New York State)! Copyright image

It is also at least partially to blame for the fact that many drivers wrongly believe that as long as they can see where they are going, in low-light conditions, that is all that matters, but again this is dangerous.  A crucial part of the purpose of headlights is to more easily let other road users see you approaching.

Photograph of the speedometer and other dashboard dials, lit up at night.
If you are accidentally driving on your Daytime Running Lights [DRLs] your dashboard instrument lights will *probably* not be lit (to give you a clue) but check your own vehicle to find out if that is the case for you. Copyright image.
And it’s not just dawn and dusk that matter, either.  Some very important research, from various countries, has shown that driving with low beam headlights on at all times, reduces your chances of being in collision with a vehicle or person who — because they didn’t see you coming — drives or walks out in front of you, by between 14% and 28% (depending on the exact research criteria).  Does it need to be said that reducing the risk of T-boning another vehicle, or perhaps of you killing a pedestrian or bicyclist, by such a significant percentage is a really good thing?

Photograph of a pick-up trucke waiting to turn out of a side road, and in which the driver might be dazzled by sunshine when he looks to see if it is safe to proceed.
When the waiting driver checks to his left, towards our approaching vehicle, he may well be dazzled by the low sun, behind us, so this is just one example of times when headlights help your conspicuity greatly, even in bright sunshine. Copyright image.

So when should you use your headlights?

In terms of safety, Sweden was a long way ahead of the rest of the world on this subject — something which will not surprise true road safety experts around the world, because Sweden has long been one of the two best performing countries worldwide (along with Britain).

Back in 1977, it was made law in Sweden that all drivers must use headlights all the time, 24 hours a day, no matter what the weather… Period! Relevantly, this safety function is known as varselljus (“perception light” or “notice light”).  [My thanks to Barry Kenward for this useful insight.]

Photograph of a car in the foreground with no lights on, compared to vehicles in the distance which do have headlights on.
The vehicles in the distance are more conspicuous then the nearer vehicle because they have their headlights on but it doesn’t. Remember, conspicuity is at least as important even at a significant distance because it can persuade an oncoming driver not to commence a risky passing maneuver. Copyright image.

Eventually — meaning in the last 20-or-so years — some other countries belatedly started to realize the safety benefits of keeping headlights on, even on bright sunny days.  However, as it is a fact that vehicles do consume extra fuel — even though it is only a tiny fraction more — whenever additional electrical demands are placed on the vehicles, such as air conditioning or headlights, some conservation-minded people protested that using headlights at all times would increase the production of greenhouse gases and add to the pollution problem.

Photograph of a moving car's headlight beam at night, from the side.
The beam from Daytime Running Lights [DRLs] is typically not as powerful as that from your low beam headlights — one of the two safety reasons never to drive in poor light with only the DRLs. Copyright image.
As a result, Daytime Running Lights [DRL] were invented, and these used a bit less power on the headlights, to help reduce emissions.  So far, so good.  But some countries and automakers then very stupidly made a bad decision, which was that DRLs did not need to operate the rear lights as well, just the headlights on lower-than-usual power, because omitting the rear lights would save even more electrical power and the resultant but tiny amount of additional emissions.  The ongoing result of this is that drivers in such vehicles are commonly seen, driving around at night with no back lights at all and with DRL front lights which are not as bright as proper, low-beam headlights, so there is extra risk up front and significant danger from behind, especially in poor weather conditions.

I would stress at this point that I have always been a keen naturalist and now an enthusiastic conservationist, and I am by no means averse to cutting harmful emissions.  However, given the direct and undeniable risk to people which occurs when vehicles are driven without adequate lights and are therefore not seen until too late, which issue has to take priority?

Tongue-in-cheek, you should note that no automakers have decided to devote less power to their in-vehicle air conditioning — something that certainly would save more power and therefore more emissions.  In other words, the hypocrisy from automakers is that they will reduce the safety of road users but they will not consider reducing the comfort of their customers, even though environmentally it would do more good.  Putting comfort (and, of course, profits) before safety!

Photo of a road sign requiring "headlights on at all times for safety.
Even though signs like this are typically only used on certain roads and in only a few of the states, this sign actually says it all: Headlights on at ALL times for safety! Copyright image.

So what IS the best advice, in terms of greatest safety?

Here’s a list:

  1. Do NOT rely on Daytime Running Lights [DRL].  We are all human and if something else is on your mind it is all too easy to forget that in low light or poor weather you have no back lights to protect the rear of your vehicle.  Many people undoubtedly have been killed or seriously hurt as a result;
  2. Do NOT rely on automatic headlamps that switch themselves on when a light sensor tells them to.  As with many automatic things, circumstances can sometimes create the wrong outcome and you wont have lights when they really are needed;
  3. IGNORE any rules or guidelines that mention sunrise and sunset.  Even the bright, low sunshine and contrasty shadows that occur before some sunsets and after some sunrises can create situations where vehicles are hard to see;
  4. The common rule about “Wipers On, Lights On” is also INADEQUATE — written, as is so often the case, by somebody with inadequate knowledge who merely thought it was a good idea.  The fact is that many weather conditions such as heavy cloud, mist or lightly falling snow can easily take the light down below the sensible threshold at which lights definitely should be used, even if wipers are not needed! (See the photographs.)
  5. NEVER drive with just the front sidelights (a.k.a. position or parking lights) illuminated, even where there is good street-  or road-lighting.  Sidelights are not adequate for your conspicuity.
  6. What do we do at Advanced Drivers of North America?  That’s easy to answer.  We use at least low-beam headlights, and therefore rear lights too, 24/7.  Does that increase our vehicle emissions?  Yes, undeniably, but by a miniscule amount.  And is the safeguarding of human lives more important?  We think the last question answers itself.

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Keep Clear of Semi Tractor-Trailers at Intersections and Tight Curves

Over 4,500 people are killed each year in the USA in road collisions that involve semi tractor-trailers and other large trucks, and the majority of those killed are in smaller vehicles which, for whatever reason, are simply too close to the truck concerned.

Photo of "Wide Turn" warning signs on the spray flaps of a semi tractor-trailer.
A good proportion of large trucks, especially semi tractor-trailers, display warning signs — here on the spray flaps — about the need for them to be driven “wide” on the approach to sharp turns at intersections, yet sadly a huge number of car drivers remain oblivious to the extreme danger that can result from ignoring these warnings. (Copyright image.)

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Don’t Trust Tire Shops or Car Mechanics to Put Correct Pressures in Your Tires!

As a retired traffic patrol police officer, I have seen far too many bodies at road crashes so I’m fastidious about highway safety, which very much includes tire safety!

Photograph of the tread surface of a Bridgestone Blizzack winter tire.
The tread surface of a new Bridgestone Blizzack winter tire. All good winter tyres use special rubber compounds which retain pliability and grip, even at very low temperatures, and this extremely important for safety. (Copyright image. Eddie Wren, 2017.)

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No Back Lights at Night? Blame Daytime Running Lights [DRL]

Daytime Running Lights [DRL] commonly only illuminate the front lights of a vehicle, and not the rear lights. (See the photograph below.)

Usually, they also do not illuminate the dashboard lights for the speedometer and other instruments and controls.  This is intended to alert drivers to the fact that only the DRLs are operating and therefore only the front lights are on, but as most drivers have never been adequately informed about this scenario, many just assume that there is a fault with the dashboard lights and drive on, unaware of the danger they are causing for themselves and others.

Photograph of a vehicle displaying frontal "Daytime Running Lights" (DRLs) but no rear lights -- a potentially very dangerous situation, especially in heavy rain or fog, where visibility is reduced.
A regrettably common sight in North America:  A vehicle running on Daytime Running Lights (DRLs), where the driver sees light at the front and assumes that all lights are on, but DRLs have less power than low-beam headlights and typically only operate the front lights and not the tail lights. This creates significant danger from behind, especially in heavy rain or foggy conditions that reduce visibility. Usually, the dashboard instruments are also unlit — and this is intended as a clue for the driver — but as drivers have not been adequately educated about many aspects of safe driving, many just drive on, oblivious to the danger they are causing. (Copyright image.)

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Winter Tires or All-Season Tyres? See this for Some Big Surprises! (Video)

Which is better on winter roads: a two-wheel drive car with winter tires or a similarly-sized four-wheel drive vehicle (such as an SUV or pick-up truck) with all-season tyres?

How much do you genuinely know about tire grip and traction — and therefore about safety — on winter roads?

Photo showing a pick-up truck that has spun-off the highway, on snow.
Look at the vehicles that you see spun-off from snow or ice. You will be shocked how many of them are four-wheel-drive SUVs or pick-up trucks, which shows that the drivers don’t know the difference between traction and grip, for their tires. Winter or snow tires are far better than all-season even when it’s just cold, let alone when there actually is snow or ice. (Copyright image.)

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Using Headlights in Bad Weather — Listen to the Truck Drivers!

Despite many years of advice and even laws to change the situation, many people apparently still don’t get it that headlights are not just to help them see where they are going!

Photo showing the serious lack of view in a truck's mirrors during rain.
The lack of view in a truck’s mirrors during rain. Photo courtesy of Ryan Douglas Dorius

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