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.)
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.
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.
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?
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.]
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.
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!
So what IS the best advice, in terms of greatest safety?
Here’s a list:
- 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;
- 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;
- 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;
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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!
Once a person has been driving for a few years, and maybe had no crashes, it’s okay to go a few miles an hour over the posted speed limit, right? And the police don’t give out tickets if you’re doing just 35 mph in a 30 limit or 45 in a 40 limit, so it’s got to be safe, yeh?
Many people try to justify a bit of extra speed like this with their opinion that it’s safe and of no consequence, or they are frankly just oblivious to it because “everybody else does the same all the time,” but sadly — in fact tragically — these myths are the opposite of the truth.
A major part of the problem lies in the laws of physics — the only laws, so the old joke goes, that nobody can break — so if you don’t like what follows, blame Einstein and Newton and all of their pals.
A key fact is that the faster an object is moving, the harder it is to stop it. But this is where those rules of physics come in. A normal, non-scientific person would assume that if something is going twice as fast now as it was say a minute ago, it will be twice as hard to stop it, right? But it doesn’t work like that. At twice the speed, an object is much more than twice as hard to stop and as a rough rule-of-thumb a vehicle takes about four times as far to stop under braking if its speed has been doubled.
The other problem involves a driver’s best reaction time. Straight away, though, here’s another sad fact: Most drivers don’t concentrate properly on their driving so very few can use their “best” reactions in an emergency. So whether a person has good, medium or bad reactions, they will take the same time as they usually do to react in any risky situation that they were not expecting to occur, and if a vehicle is travelling at twice its previous speed it will obviously cover twice the distance while the driver is in the process of reacting, so a lot of extra ground has been lost and there is now that much less time and distance in which to stop before hitting the thing up ahead that has caused the driver to brake.
Most people can do well on an actual test of reaction time. Someone says something like “press the button each time the light comes on,” and you do. But the problem is that you know that the light is going to come on and so you are ready, with your finger on the button and muscles tensed. But real life, and in particular driving, are not like that. Drivers are typically far too complacent (e.g. “I’ve been driving for thirty years and never had a crash.” Or “I’ve driven this road a thousand times; I know every bump and twist.”)
And virtually all drivers are distracted, too. Yes, far too many are crazy enough to talk on cell phones — even hands-free phone conversations significantly increase the risk of a serious crash but it’s not possible to enforce this so no law enforcement agencies have tried to do so — and others even text while driving, which is a form of homicidal or suicidal lunacy. But these aren’t the only issues: Anybody driving while thinking about anything other than their driving at any moment is a distracted driver; there’s no getting away from that fact, and we ALL do it. A key difference between unsafe drivers and safer drivers is that the safer ones think only about their driving for a much larger proportion of the time, and that takes effort. But nobody is a robot. Nobody can concentrate at the 100 percent level for 100 percent of the time, especially on longer journeys.
So now, back to the few miles an hour over the posted speed limit: That’s only a few MPH, right; not double the speed? But lets see the effect.
Here’s a relatively old video showing exactly what can happen when a driver is doing 35mph in a 30mph limit. The age of the video is irrelevant because the physics of the matter will never change. Even as better braking technology has trimmed some feet off stopping distances over the years, that still has not prevented the same effect happening; it just takes place at slightly different distances.
The next video shows a very different way of looking at the same problem, but as the speeds used are given in kilometres, here’s a conversion list for American and British readers:
- 65 km/h = 40.6 mph
- 60 km/h = 37.5 mph
- 32 km/h = 20 mph
- . 5 km/h = . 3 mph
So just a tiny three miles per hour difference in the initial speeds made a life-threatening 17mph difference in impact speeds. If that doesn’t convince you, nothing will!
Finally, if you are thinking about swerving as an alternative to braking to try to avoid a crash, please don’t forget that while swerving is sometimes successful on racetracks, where everyone is ultra-alert and all travelling in one direction (although it can still fail spectacularly, too), and it might be great fun to practice skid recovery or evasive swerving on abandoned runways and empty parking lots, the fact is that on real roads there are often vehicles coming the other way. Do you want to hit one and die? Trees and ditches can easily kill you, too. And then there can be pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists nearby. Do you want to kill them (and then pretend to the officer that it was somehow an unavoidable “accident” rather than a dangerous choice of your own speed)?
Take a look at the Golden Rule of Safe Driving.
If this article sounds as though I’m preaching at readers or lecturing you, I apologize, but as a retired traffic patrol police officer who has attended too many fatal and serious-injury crashes, and also had to tell too many devastated loved ones that their husband, wife, daddy, mommy, brother, sister, son or daughter is never coming home again, then — believe me — I really hope that you will take the above facts to heart and make sure that neither your own family nor anyone else’s will ever have to hear that news all because you were doing a few miles an hour over the speed limit.
It happens every day without fail! About 30 out of the average 100-plus highway deaths every single day in the USA involve someone driving over the posted speed limit or at a speed that was inappropriately too fast for the circumstances, even if that was within the limit.
On 4 October, 2017, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration posted a link on Facebook, leading back to a California DMV web page on the subject of supposedly safe steering, which was based on guidelines from NHTSA itself.
Sadly, however, it is fairly clear that America has never had a systemic hierarchy in relation to good, safe driving methodology… something that the nation’s grossly-inadequate and often even inappropriate standard of driving tests illustrates all too well. Even American law enforcement departments — limited almost entirely to private-track “dynamics” driver training — have too few skills and too little knowledge for safe driving when, in fact, they should be setting the highest-possible example for the task.
Over the past twelve years, Advanced Drivers of North America has had the privilege of working in rural areas in most American states, training into the thousands of drivers at various agricultural and agro-chemical corporations — people who typically have been born and raised in such areas and who are very conversant indeed with country living and with nature.