When it comes to driving, there are four main ways to keep yourself and the ones you love safe on the road: 1. Avoiding driving entirely, 2. limiting driving, 3. driving safely, and 4. driving safe vehicles. Much like reducing, reusing, and recycling, the earlier actions are more effective than the later actions.
The safest driving technique is to avoid driving entirely. If you can’t avoid driving, you’ll want to spend as little time in passenger vehicles as possible. When that’s not possible, you’ll want to use the safest driving techniques you have at hand, and when all else fails, you’ll want to choose the safest vehicles possible when you have to be behind the wheel.
Today’s article focuses on the third tier of action: safe driving techniques. These are the things you do whenever you enter a passenger vehicle, whether as a driver or as a passenger. An example of a technique most of us use is to safely restrain ourselves and our children if we have them. Another example–which we’ll focus on today–is to drive with headlights or daytime running lights.
Why should we drive with headlights on or consider vehicles with daytime running lights (DRLs)?
DRLs are basically low-energy headlights that are programmed to light up whenever your vehicle is running. They’re a cheap, simple, and effective way to reduce your risk of being involved in a crash, particularly head-on collisions during the daytime as well as collisions involving the front corners of your vehicle. You see oncoming traffic more easily when it’s lit up, and the traffic sees you more easily when you’re lit up. Or to put it another way:
1. Headlights/DRLs reduce your risks of daytime frontal collisions. Making yourself visible means you’re less likely to have a driver drift into your lane when approaching you.
2. Headlights reduce your risks of daytime rear-end collisions. If your taillights are lit up, you’re less likely to be rear-ended. Note that most DRLs don’t activate the taillights, so this is a headlight-specific advantage.
3. DRLs keep you from driving at dawn/dusk/night/in poor weather without lights. This is a DRL-specific advantage, although it also exists in vehicles with auto headlights. If your car always has lights on or can turn them on for you, you won’t get caught driving in low light conditions without them, which both increases your safety and eliminates the risk of being pulled over for driving without headlights at night.
What if I don’t have DRLs? Are headlights as effective?
Yes! If your vehicle doesn’t come with DRLs, you can get the same effect, and often a better one, by running your low-beams all day long. Low beams are often brighter than DRLs, which gives you an additional visibility benefit, in terms of your ability to be seen, while driving during the day time. As noted above, using your headlights instead of DRLs also offers the advantage of having lit taillights, which can reduce your risk of being rear-ended during the daytime.
What do the stats and research say about DRL effectiveness?
The statistics show that DRLs provide a safety benefit that increases with the amount of darkness in an area. Estimates of multiple-vehicle crash reduction benefits have ranged from zero percent to 3% to 5% to 7%, depending on the study. Scandinavian countries show 3x the benefits from them than the US, ostensibly due to light level differences.
Given the fact that half of all auto fatalities in the US are due to multiple-vehicle collisions, any factor that can reduce their prevalence is worth considering, particularly when such factors are built into every vehicle on the road (through headlights if not through DRL systems).
If DRLs are helpful, why aren’t they required in the US? And what’s their history?
That’s a great question, and the answer, as is often the case, is political. They’re required in Canada and in many countries in Europe; Canada made them required for vehicles manufactured after December 1989, while the European Union put DRLs into law for cars and small vans after February 2011. They originated in the Scandinavian countries, which have very short days during the winter season. Sweden made them required in 1977, followed by Norway in 1986, Iceland two years later, Denmark two years after that, and Finland in 1997.
The US will likely make them a requirement someday, but there are likely a lot of lobbyists to be overcome first. When keeping in mind obvious safety features that aren’t required, remember that side airbags also aren’t legally required in the US yet, and that vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler continue to be sold without them.
What about my bulb life and fuel economy? Will I burn through bulbs or get poorer gas mileage with DRLs?
In most cases, you aren’t going to get a significantly shorter bulb life or significantly worse fuel economy while using DRLs or headlights. Low beams typically use a bit more energy than DRLs, but the effects are still negligible. If you really want long bulb life, you’ll want to switch to HID or LED bulbs over your OEM bulbs anyway. Furthermore, per NHTSA estimates, only a fraction of an mpg is lost when headlights or DRLs are used in most cases. The safety advantages far outweigh any potential losses.
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