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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Seeing the light

Driving near dusk, I always notice a variance as to when drivers turn on their headlights for the night.  Some drivers illuminate them well before the arrival of darkness, some do so just after sunset and a few switch them on uncomfortably late.

As early darkness is here now and earlier darkness will occur soon as daylight savings time ends, the proper time to light your lights is an important safety issue.  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 some recent winter drives, I’ve decided that turning them on a bit earlier might be better.  That’s because the majority of drivers, based upon my observation, turn on their lights about a half-hour BEFORE sunset, making cars among them without lit lights harder 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 jump off a bridge just because the neighbor kid did.  However, among strings of traffic approaching from my front and back, it is easy to compare the degrees of visibility those cars.

While those with headlights off may be visible when alone, they become cloaked to near invisible status when interspersed with “lit” vehicles.  Although I may not be ready to turn on my lights based on ambient conditions, I often adjust my turn-on time according to those around me in order to be easily seen amid them.

As mentioned, I normally turn on headlights around sunset.  But in some traffic situations, I would be in small minority if I followed that norm.  So far this winter, my informal study shows about 75 percent of vehicles have lights on a half-hour before sunset, and another 20 percent are shining just before the sun dips below the horizon.  Half of remainder become lit within a few minutes after sunset, and at 30 minutes after sunset (Washington’s requirement), all but one or two vehicles within my view are generally illuminated.

Those guidelines are during clear weather, but during rain, snow, or fog, headlights are advised both day and night.  Depending upon car color, those inclement conditions can render a 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.

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.  My evening studies involve normal headlights, not DRLs (which run at a lower intensity than headlights), but I can certainly see how unlit vehicles “hide” among lit vehicles, especially when the majority of vehicles are lit.

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