At night, we drive with our headlights on. Not only a good idea, it’s the law! In most states, you are required to turn on your headlights from one-half hour before sunset to one-half hour after sunrise. Headlights are a good thing, since they light up the road in front of us and allow us to see things that we otherwise might not notice, like things in the road, signs, curves and intersections. Downright handy.
But when we hit that headlight switch, more than just headlights happen. There are tail lights, rear license plate light, and of course side marker lights. These all help you to be seen by others, and that includes the headlights. So lights at night help others see you and therefore not crash into you. Again, downright handy.
So why do we see cars on the road at dawn, dusk and at night with no lights turned on?
Newer cars have electronic dashboard gauges. “Back in the day,” the gauges were arranged in front of the driver and visible during the day with available light. At night, the dashboard was dark until you turned on the lights and the dashboard lights came on. So it was easy to see that the lights were not on – dark dashboard. But the dashboard gauges today are actually lighted from behind all the time. During the day, the lights are very bright so that the driver can see them during the light of day. With the headlights on, the gauge lights actually get dimmer in order to keep from ruining the driver’s night vision. So the dashboard never goes dark – ever.
Many newer cars also have DRLs – Daytime Running Lights. These are white lights that are often incorporated into the headlight systems, but a little dimmer than the actual headlight low beam. This means that from the driver’s point of view, the “headlights” are actually on all the time.
When it starts getting dark, the “normal” cues as to whether the headlights are on or off are just not there. The dashboard is lighted and there is actually some light coming from the front of the car, so the uninterested or distracted driver never gives it a second thought…and drives away without doing anything with the headlight switch.
In my former life as a police officer, I had the occasion to talk to people who were driving without lights. One night I stopped four folks in a rental car. The driver, a young girl, couldn’t figure out the light switch. With the lights off, the gauges were lit up (and quite bright at night), but when she turned the headlight switch on, the lights all worked fine – but the gauges went dark. She had no idea what to do.
It turns out that someone had fooled with the dimmer for the gauges, and turned them all the way down. So when you turned on the headlights, the gauge lights dimmed to their lowest setting – almost off. Not knowing what to do, the driver decided to drive with the daytime running lights and gauges illuminated – headlights off. In the end, all is well that ends well, and we got it figured out.
Just today I noticed a car in back of me in traffic without lights on as we approached a busy intersection. The car was grey, a little ragged looking, and at the intersection the young woman driving the car went into the right lane and made a right turn onto a busy road. She did not have her lights on, but it was understandable. She was turning right on red without stopping while yelling at a small child in the back seat and a cell phone held in her left hand near her ear. Obviously had a lot going on – too much to worry about lights or traffic safety.
Living in central Florida and having annual passes to Disney World, we are frequently leaving the theme parks area with the thousands of other Micky Mouse Tourists using the huge roadways and interstate highway around Orlando. It always amazes me seeing the number of cars leaving these parks – cars full of kids – on high-speed highways with no headlights on at night. What are they thinking? Or not thinking?
Driving without headlights is a product of simply not paying attention to the task at hand – driving a car. Pilots have a checklist to ensure that they click all the switches prior to flight, but we don’t have such a thing in the car. Driving while distracted includes the initial startup, and of course turning on the lights. Now, none of us will ever admit to doing this – not out loud at least, but you can “imagine” that all takes is a little distraction to forget something this critical. And if you forget something like this, what else are you forgetting to do?
Over thirty thousand people lose their lives each year on the streets and highways of America. Some are due to drunk driving, some are victims of aggressive driving. However, things like driving dark contribute to this number, as well as other “distracted” or “confused” driving issues, including wrong-way driving, following too closely and running red lights and stop signs.
So what can you do about it? In a time of arguing about who is right and who is wrong, think about this – drive in a manner that is meant to compensate for other people’s bad habits. If you see a dark car at night on the road, get away from it. Treat intersections expecting that those who are supposed to stop will not. Stay away from aggressive drivers. Don’t speed, and use your seat belt properly and as designed.
These things will help you stay out of the thirty thousand dead each year. Your life is too important to lose it in a traffic crash.
House Spouse Kevin