On sunny days, or at dawn & sunset, big road bridges can often look very attractive, but when the weather takes a turn for the worse, they can create significant dangers for the unwary driver.
News has just been published today that a truck driver has been killed after high winds apparently pushed his vehicle through the safety fence on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Tragically the driver lost his life.
This is particularly saddening for me as I went over that bridge, in mildly bad but contrarily beautiful weather, just a few weeks ago while instructing on an advanced driving course in Maryland and Delaware.
In our case, the bad weather was fog which appeared to have largely burned off before we got there, however, only the top layer had gone from it and the fog down below, between us and the water, was still thick, and showed just how quickly it could have rolled across the bridge and seriously blocked all of the drivers’ views of the roadway.
The key thing is that tall, exposed bridges can be subject to very serious and very rapid changes of weather, including fog, ice, unconstrained blizzard conditions, driving rain, and the one that killed the unfortunate truck driver mentioned above, high winds.
Does any driver enjoy getting a large amount of snow, dirty water, or — worst of all — salt-filled winter slush thrown up onto their windscreen, temporarily making it hard to see and needing large amounts of windshield washer fluid to clean it away? It’s a silly question, isn’t it? It’s obvious that none of us likes that experience, especially as it can at least briefly make things unsafe, through the loss of view, the distraction of rectifying the lost view, and last but by no means least, the fact that the overtaken driver has now been forced into a tailgating scenario (see more about this, below).
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.
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.
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 12 years, Advanced Drivers of North America has carried out driver safety training throughout the Pacific North West, including six cities (each for different corporate clients) in Washington, from the Tri-Cities in the south-east of the state to Bellingham in the north-west, and of course Seattle.
Perhaps 6-8 years ago, the US DOT and NHTSA published a statistic online that identified a thoroughly horrifying situation. Put simply, it said that the chances for every young person in the USA being involved in a serious-injury or fatal road crash at some point in their life is an astonishingly-high “fifty-fifty.” At that time, I looked at my four American step-daughters and wondered which two — statistically speaking — it might be. That statistic, however, very swiftly disappeared off the Internet.
Now, however, I also have six American grandchildren, and just today — August 11, 2017 — another statistic has been published on Facebook by NHTSA which very effectively renews my concerns. It said exactly this:
NHTSA· 1 hr · The chance of being in an alcohol-impaired crash is one in three over the course of a lifetime. #BuzzedDriving
As of tomorrow –July 23, 2017 — it will be against the law for Washington State drivers to use hand-held cell phones while they are driving. This applies to all electronic devices, including tablets, laptops and video games. Tickets for driving while using hand-held electronics will go on a driver’s record and be reported to their insurance provider: