Night driving is an essential part of motoring for most people, so if you have just passed your test do not keep putting off the day when you first drive in darkness. Like all other aspects of handling a car safely, night driving presents no undue risks as long as you observe the rules. Indeed, there are positive advantages to driving at night, when traffic begins to thin out: the experience can be less stressful and your journey time can be reduced. Driving in the dark, however, can be dangerous if you do not obey the rules, especially on a long run when you are feeling tired. Always remember the extra dangers of allowing your concentration to lapse, because accident rates per vehicle mile do rise dramatically at night.
All the lights on your car should be in working order, with headlights operative on both dipped and main beams. If you are in any doubt about the beam alignment, have it checked at a garage which has the appropriate equipment. If you are planning a long night journey with a heavy load weighing down the back of your car, it can be wise to have the headlights adjusted temporarily, but remember to have them returned to the usual setting after the journey. Having the nose of your car pointing up a few degrees can be enough for your dipped beam to dazzle oncoming drivers, and for your main beam uselessly to illuminate the tops of the hedgerows. Before having any adjustment made, though, check in the manufacturer's handbook to see whether your car has a simple device to allow you to change the headlight angle yourself.
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Check regularly that all your lights work. You can check most of them yourself, but you will need someone else to watch your brake lights while you press the pedal. If no-one else is available, simply park your car close to a wall and watch for the reflected glow as you try the brakes. While driving, you can check the lights from time to time in a stationary line of traffic by looking for the reflections in the bodywork of cars ahead and behind.
Most modern cars are equipped with excellent headlights of the quartz-halogen variety but if you own an older car, and are unhappy with the lights, investigate the possibility of changing them. Fitting auxiliary lights is always a good idea, but if you do this without changing poor headlights you might find the contrast between brilliant auxiliary beam and feeble dipped beam all the more disconcerting. Quartz-halogen lights give a much more powerful and whiter beam. Auxiliary fog and spot lights are valuable aids to driving safely at night, but make sure you have the beam adjusted properly. The law requires that auxiliary
lights must be fitted in pairs, because a single beam could be mistaken for a motorcycle, and they must be mounted within the dimensions laid down by the Department of the Environment. The law also states that very low-slung lights may only be used in conditions of fog or falling snow.
Reversing and hazard lights
Most cars are also equipped with reversing lights, which are tremendously valuable in illuminating obstacles and pedestrians when you reverse your car. If your car does not have them fitted, buy a pair at an accessory shop and have them wired to come on automatically when reverse gear is selected. Extra brake lights for installation in the rear window can also be bought at accessory shops. They are not really necessary in view of the intensity of the brake lights now fitted to modern cars, but they do offer one advantage: their high location allows drivers several cars back in a stream of traffic to have earlier warning when you brake. A few new cars are now sold in Britain with a high-level central brake light fitted at the base of the rear window. Some drivers find this type of auxiliary brake light distracting because it is at eye level, but it can also provide earlier warning when you spot It in the distance through the windows of cars ahead. All modern cars have hazard warning lights operated by a switch which enables all four direction indicators to flash simultaneously as warning when you have to stop at an awkward spot in an emergency, such as on a motorway hard shoulder. A good accessory shop can supply the necessary modification if your car does not have hazard lights.
Never fit yellow bulbs or lens covers, or any substance to colour the glass, to your headlights except when driving in France. French-registered cars must be fitted with yellow lights in the interests of reducing dazzle, but this is achieved only because partially opaque colouring reduces the total light output. Other European countries do not favour yellow headlights, and neither should you.
It is just as important to make sure that the driver, as well as the car, is properly prepared for night driving. The dangers of wearing 'night driving' glasses, or just ordinary sunglasses, were discussed in Observation. Any spectacles which reduce dazzle are not a good idea because they cut down the total light reaching your eyes, making dimly-lit hazards — pedestrians or parked cars in shadows, for example — harder to see. Since any sight deficiencies are relatively worse at night, make sure your eyes are checked regularly by an optician. Should you be in any doubt about your vision being worse in darkness than during the day, have your eyes tested for night driving purposes; an optician will be able to prescribe spectacles accordingly if you need them.
Few people regularly drive long distances at night, so on the rare occasions when this is necessary do not underestimate the need to prepare yourself properly. What could otherwise be an enjoyable drive over near-deserted roads could turn into a worrying struggle to stay awake at the wheel. Many accidents are caused by drivers falling asleep, so be very conscious of the fact that it is all too easy to become overwhelmed by fatigue without being aware of it. Do not embark on a long night drive after a strenuous day, and before you set out avoid eating a heavy meal, which might make you feel drowsy. Certainly keep off all alcohol as your judgement and concentration deteriorate after just one drink. Never take pills to stay awake, since such drugs can have dangerous side-effects which affect your ability at the wheel.
Keep asking yourself throughout your journey whether you feel at all tired, and stop for a break if you do. Remember that bitter experience has led to 'Tiredness can kill' signs being erected on routes where many holidaymakers drive through the night. However good you feel, do not drive for more than two hours, at the very most, without a break to stretch your legs, breathe fresh air and, perhaps, have a cup of coffee. The dangers of tiredness become more acute in the later stages of a journey, so if you start to feel sleepy stop the car somewhere safe (never on a motorway hard shoulder) for a quick nap; dozing for a short time can make you feel quite revived. Another good idea is to go for a short but vigorous run up the road to get your circulation going again.
Although you should never reach a state where such extreme measures to keep yourself awake become necessary, always err well on the side of caution. Fatigue at the wheel can be as lethal as driving under the influence of drink or drugs. One precaution you can take is to turn the heater down when you feel tired, as a warm fug is just the atmosphere to make your eyes feel heavy. Keep plenty of fresh, cool air blowing through the vents and open a window; having diagonally opposite windows open will allow an invigorating rush of air through the car.
Dazzle and visibility
Novice drivers invariably find that their biggest worry about night driving is glare from the headlights of oncoming vehicles, which we have already talked about in Observation. Almost all drivers find that their eyes at first are drawn involuntarily towards approaching headlights, but in time they learn to make a conscious effort to look away and concentrate the gaze on the road directly ahead. With experience this reaction becomes second nature, and you start to appreciate oncoming headlights for the extra light which they throw into your path.
Occasionally you will meet another motorist who is too inconsiderate or forgetful to dip his headlights when you approach. You should always dip your lights when you see the cast of a beam approaching, and certainly before the other vehicle is in sight. If the other driver does not respond to your dipping action, it is acceptable to use a quick flash on to main beam to remind him. Invariably this will bring the desired relief to your eyes as the other driver reacts, but occasionally he will stay on main beam (or perhaps what appears to be main beam, because his dipped headlights are way out of adjustment or his vehicle is heavily laden). You may be tempted to retaliate by staying on main beam yourself, but this response is foolish; it means that there are two dazzled drivers on the road instead of one, which in turn doubles the danger. Furthermore, remember how the human eye works: while it can quickly contract the pupil to shut out unwanted light, it takes much longer to dilate afterwards. For several risky seconds after your two vehicles have passed, both of you will be driving in a semi-dazzled state.
It is essential to remember the basic rule of good driving - always drive at a speed which enables you to stop within the distance you can see - when you are motoring at night. This means keeping your speed down so that you can always pull up within the distance illuminated by your headlights. On dipped beam along a straight road this may mean that your speed has to be lower at night than during the day. Keep your headlights on main beam on country roads except when other road users approach; as well as car and lorry drivers, this means motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians. You should keep the vehicle ahead at such a distance that it is in the far fringe of light from your dipped beam, remembering that you must also maintain a safe stopping distance. When changing from main to dipped beam, reduce your speed if necessary to a level appropriate to your shorter range of visibility.
Two points of advice are worthwhile for the use of dipped and main beam headlights when driving round bends. On a left-hander, make sure that you dip early to avoid your main beam dazzling the oncoming driver as it sweeps across the inside of the curve. Conversely, on a right-hander you do not need to dip quite so early, and strictly you may not need to dip at all as your headlights shine towards the outer edge of the curve. Since approaching drivers may not be aware of this and will be waiting for you to dip your headlights, it is generally courteous to do so even though it may not really be necessary.
Always drive on dipped lights when following another driver so that you do not dazzle him in his mirrors. You should also use dipped lights when following motorcyclists or cyclists as a rider can find his visibility impaired when his own shadow is thrown forward by main beam lights. If a driver behind is thoughtless enough to keep his lights on main beam, raise your hand to the mirror to show him that he is distracting you. If he does not respond, use the dip facility on your mirror or move it by a few degrees so that his lights can still be seen but do not dazzle you. Either way, remember to return the mirror to its usual position as soon as the offending lights have gone.
Use dipped lights, rather than sidelights (or parking lights, as they are perhaps more aptly described), when driving in town, on illuminated motorways and in bad weather. Although new cars are now fitted with `dim-dip' lights, which give an intensity halfway between sidelights and dipped lights, it is still best to use dipped lights at all times when it is dark.
Never hesitate to switch on your sidelights as soon as daylight begins to fade, and use your headlights as soon as you consider them necessary. Even though the light at dawn and dusk can be good enough for you to see quite happily without headlights, remember that the point of using lights in fading light is for you to be seen by other road users. Many drivers with a frugal nature seem to think that headlights should be saved until they are necessary to see by, and may give you a reproving 'flash' when you have switched yours on good and early. Their sense of economy is misplaced for two reasons: it costs nothing to run a car's headlights since battery life is not shortened, and a semi-invisible car is a very dangerous object.
To make the most of the illumination be sure to keep your headlights clean; even a thin film of grime can cut the light output by half, while only a tenth of the light may get through a thick layer. If your car's bodywork is at all dirty, you can be sure that your lights are not as bright as they could be. On damp winter roads it is surprising how quickly mud can coat your lights; just think how often you need to use windscreen wipers and washers to clear your view, and then imagine the layer of dirt your headlights are trying to pierce. If conditions are particularly mucky, therefore, stop every now and then to wipe down the lights. It is a good idea to keep tissue in the car for this purpose and soak it in washer fluid so that all the dirt comes off, unless you are lucky enough to own a car with headlight washers and wipers.
- Always be sure that all your lights are working, and that your headlights are correctly adjusted.
- Stop for regular breaks when making a long journey at night. Fatigue is very dangerous: when you begin to feel slightly tired your concentration and speed of reaction suffer; sleepiness makes you lethal.
- Use dipped and main beam headlights intelligently, and make sure that you can always stop safely in the distance illuminated by your dipped lights.
- Do not delay in switching on your headlights in fading light or bad weather. Make sure that your headlights are always kept clean.