While driving northward on Highway 195 just before sunset last week, I noted varying driver behavior. Besides the typical driver speed variance — some fast, some slow, and some all over the place — there was a wide distinction of timing for use of headlights.
In Washington, by law, vehicle headlights must be turned on from a half hour after sunset until a half hour before sunrise; basically, dusk to dawn.
I’ve always used a sunset ‘til sunrise guideline for my headlight illumination, but during that drive on 195, I decided that turning them on a bit earlier might be better. That’s mainly because the majority of drivers, based upon the dozens I viewed that afternoon, turned on their lights about a half-hour BEFORE sunset, making cars among them without lit lights hard to see.
I don’t usually change behavior just to conform — after all, like most people, I learned early on that I didn’t have to jump from a tall tree just because the neighbor kid did. But with the lengthy strings of traffic approaching from my front and back, it was easy to compare the degrees of visibility those cars offered to me on that drive.
While those with headlights off were visible when alone, they became cloaked to near invisible status when interspersed with “lit” vehicles. I must admit that based on ambient light that clear day, I was not ready to turn on my lights. It was well before sunset, and as mentioned, I usually employ a sunset to sunrise mode for headlights, and occasionally stretch to the half-hour after sunset requirement of Washington law.
It might be due to conditioning transferred from saving electricity at home by being stingy with lights, but I usually resist turning on my headlights until at least sunset. Well, on that early evening, I would have been in the small minority if I’d waited that long. About 75 percent of vehicles had lights on a half-hour before sunset, and another 20 percent were shining several minutes before the sun dipped below the horizon. A few minutes after sunset, I only saw one vehicle without headlights lit, and by 30 minutes after sunset (Washington’s law), there were no vehicles without illumination.
That day had clear weather, but during rain, snow, or fog, headlights are usually advised regardless of the sun’s position. Depending upon car color, those inclement conditions can render you vehicle hard to see by others. Some states even have laws requiring headlights to be on when wipers are activated. While there is no such law in Washington, that procedure is recommended in the Washington Driver Guide.
Reader V.K. has a strong opinion on the topic, writing “Enjoyed your Nov. 9 article and winter reminders from WSP. One big glaring omission, and one of my biggest pet peeves. And it is dangerous. Vehicle colors from white, up through the grays, and all dark colors, on two lane roads, in fog and/or rain, often snow covered, day light or dark, especially at dawn or dusk, with no lights. In my opinion, the biggest safety equipment omission for all vehicles for the last thirty years is not including a wipers on/lights on feature, and running lights on the front that come on with engine start.”
Lights allow drivers to see, but they are equally important for being seen. Though there may be enough light outside for you to see well, and maybe enough for others to see your vehicle when it is alone, it’s advisable to turn on your headlights when others around you have done so.
Actually, one of the arguments against Daytime Running Lights (DRLs) is that they make vehicles around them without DRLs harder to see. Though it was with normal headlights, not DRLs (which run at a lower intensity than headlights), I could certainly see (or not see) how unlit vehicles “hid” amongst lit vehicles during my drive on 195.
Whether it’s darkness, car color, adverse weather, or other vehicles with lights on making your car difficult to see, turning on your headlights as a result of those conditions will surely improve your safety and visibility to others.
Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.