June Driving in the DarkJune 1, 2010 | in Defensive Driving Tips
Driving at night is, unfortunately, a necessary evil: necessary, because we all need to get places after dark; an evil, since driving at night is far more hazardous that driving during the day. A National Safety Council study revealed that you are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident at night than during the day. At first, driving at night may “feel” similar to daytime driving, especially if you are fortunate enough to live in an area with good street lighting. However, even under ideal conditions, driving at night can be hazardous.
In short, your eyes need light to see. When the amount of light available decreases as the sun goes down, your eyes begin to function differently, in order to make the most of the limited light available. This allows us to see at night. However, you do have to pay a price for this improved function. At night, it is more difficult for us to see clearly (20/20 vision is nearly impossible to sustain); we are unable to see colors; our depth perception decreases; and our field of vision is reduced.
How to compensate for this? First, slow down. Remember that you’re less likely to see hazards that may cross your path, such as animals, bicyclists, pedestrians, etc. You can only see as far ahead of you as your headlights; low beams provide around 250feet of vision, while high beams provide about 350-500. In order to avoid any obstacles in your path, you’ll need to be able to stop within this distance, i.e. the area illuminated by your headlights. Adjust your speed accordingly.
Remember that you see contrast less clearly at night, which means you won’t spot bumps in the road as easily. Keeping a slower speed will allow you react to any unexpected contours in the road, which means that you won’t damage your car by flying into a pothole or over a speed bump. You’ll also want to keep your eyes moving, checking for approaching lights, obstacles, etc.
Glare is also a major issue when driving at night (as well as during sunset and sunrise.) In fact, the presence of other lights on the road may actually be more dangerous than the dark itself. The lights of approaching cars can cause a couple seconds of temporary blindness. During these seconds, a car going at 55mph will travel half the length of a football field! However, you can do a few things to combat glare.
First, make sure to keep your windshield clean. The dirt and grime that accumulate on your windshield will reflect the light on the road, making glare worse. You may have noticed that while your windshield looks fine during the day, it looks worse as the sun is setting. Remember to clean your windshield on both the outside AND inside; over time, your exhalations and condensation will dirty the inside of the windshield as well. You should also keep all other lights and mirrors clean as well.
Next, avoid using your high beams within 500 feet of approaching vehicles or if you are following a car at less than 500 feet distance. You do want to use your high beams when it is safe to do so, as these can be a great help to you. However, you don’t want to blind other drivers, so be courteous in your use of high beams.
However, we all forget to turn off our high beams sometimes. If a driver approaches with high beams on, don’t flash your high beams in response, as this could temporarily blind the other driver. Instead of looking at the approaching car(s), look down and to the right, focusing on the white line at the side of the road.
Many cars also have a “day-night” setting on the rear view mirror (perhaps a little tab that changes the angle of the mirror?). You can use this to help reduce the accumulation of glare at night. Adjusting your side view mirrors properly can also help eliminate glare; see my entry on “How To Eliminate Your Blind Spot” for advice on how to do this.
In addition to these basic practices, you can take a few steps to prepare for night driving. First, if you are driving in a new area or to an unfamiliar destination, try to drive this route for the first time during the day, as navigating at night can be particularly stressful.
Next, have your headlights aligned during your next tune-up or inspection. Try to do so at least once a year. Properly aligned headlights will improve your field of vision and won’t cause as much glare for other drivers.
Also, make sure to have your vision checked regularly. Our night vision deteriorates as we age, but you may not notice this right away. It took me months of squinting at the blackboard in high school before I admitted that I needed glasses. Keep in mind that a fifty year old probably needs twice as much light as a thirty year old to see clearly at night. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin A, as this helps to keep your night vision in good working order. If you do wear glasses, you may want to get anti-reflective coating for them, as this will also help prevent glare.
Drive slowly, be aware, and don’t be a deer caught in the headlights of approaching drivers!
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