One of the biggest contributory causes of serious-injury and fatal road crashes in the USA (and the rest of the world) is speed.
Typically, speeds in excess of the posted limit, or that are within the limit but are inappropriate for the circumstances, are factors in around 28-30 percent of collisions where people are ‘Killed or Seriously Injured’ [KSI]. In American terms, this represents about 11,000 people killed and approaching a million people injured each year as a direct result of those who drive too fast.
Clearly then, excessive speed, even when below the posted limit, truly is a killer — big time — despite all of the people who emptily argue that this situation is mere propaganda and is untrue.
If excessive speed is dangerous, and it is, there is still an additional aspect that defies any logic or any excuse, and that is speeding in bad weather. And for our purposes, bad weather extends to include any situation where visibility is reduced, either through simple low-light or darkness, and also airborne view limitations such as mist, fog, dust, smoke or falling rain and snow, together with any cause of slippery road surfaces.
We hope the photographs that accompany this article give you pause for thought. The driver of the silver pick-up truck in this incident could very easily have caused the deaths of several people. All it would have taken was for an oncoming vehicle to loom out of the misty murk at the wrong moment and a collision would have been inescapable. Was he driving at a speed inappropriate for the circumstances? You betcha!
Please don’t ever be ‘that’ driver, and equally importantly, be prepared for the day when you will encounter somebody as incompetent and brainless as this particular pick-up driver was. Naturally, this involves getting your wipers onto maximum speed — in advance if possible — slowing down promptly but safely (there may be another vehicle close behind, and of course the road is slippery). Then hold a steady course as you do this and don’t allow the situation to panic you.
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.