PSA: Learn how to properly use your headlights on your vehicle - Addendum

Another look on how to use your headlights in low light or low visibility conditions, and why many drivers misunderstand their uses.

2y ago

A couple years ago, I posted a short video about how to properly use your headlights from inside your vehicle. That video can be found below...

In that video, I addressed the situation on what I observed on the road, and thought of a couple of scenarios on what drivers think when they use their lights at night. Let's get a quick rundown on what I mentioned in that video.

As drivers, we are taught to turn on the lights when there are low light conditions, typically at night time, or when going through a tunnel. So naturally, when we do encounter low light conditions, typically when we're driving at night, we turn on our lights. Although in the last decade or so, we have failed or not even realize we need to turn them on, and I'd like to add to the original post I did with a few things.

First, with the introduction of the automatic feature for headlights. Once considered a luxury item back in the 1960's on Cadillacs and Lincolns, it slowly trickled its way down to more affordable brands. The automatic headlights function is used to automatically detect low light conditions when activated by the driver by use of a switch. It relies on a light sensor, usually placed on the dashboard right below the windshield, and when low light is detected, the headlights, side markers, and tail lights turn on.

As the feature became more common, and the technology improved over the years, more of the automatic features either came optional or standard for various models of various makes. A general example is that the auto feature may not be available on a base model, but available on higher trim level models, and so on. It's a neat feature, and I use them on my car all the time, except whenever I'm servicing my vehicle in a garage, so that I don't run the risk of draining the battery.

As an example, this page is from an Owner's Manual for a 2009 Nissan Altima in the Instruments and controls chapter.

As an example, this page is from an Owner's Manual for a 2009 Nissan Altima in the Instruments and controls chapter.

Another system that is only law in certain countries is the daytime running lights, or DRLs. Their use on vehicles increases the visibility of cars during the daytime for the benefit of pedestrians and other drivers. For example, Canada has a law that any vehicle built or imported into Canada after 1990 are required by law to have daytime running lights installed, either through the headlights (typically using high beams at half-power output), front turn signals remaining on in a non-flashing state, using fog lights as daytime running lights, or a separate/dedicated lamp for use as daytime running lights.

The latter being a slightly general term, since car manufacturers, regardless of which country their vehicles would be shipped to, would use LEDs as DRLs. Over the last decade and a half or so, we have began to see LEDs being part of a vehicle's lighting system, including DRLs over the last several years, which now brings up the problems we are now facing.

To exacerbate the problem further, instrument cluster (dashboard) lighting has changed as well, in which the gauges tend to get very bright and light up during the day, and dim for night time operations, provided that the driver has properly set up their brightness levels in the first place. LCD/OLED dashboard displays have increasingly became more common since the mid-to-late 2000's, and infotainment systems over the last several years, has further brightened up the interiors of our vehicles. This wouldn't help the driver's case any better, since they already have extra information to deal with inside, rather than focus on what's outside their windshield ahead of them.

Another example from the owner's manual for Daytime Running Lights, and instrument brightness control.

Another example from the owner's manual for Daytime Running Lights, and instrument brightness control.

Which leads to the problems we are dealing with right now. With daytime running lights on, whether it be regular incandescent bulbs or LEDs, drivers mistakenly think their LED DRLs are their regular low beams, since they are bright enough to be used as it is. Vehicles made in the last several years have come with LED or High Intensity Discharge (HID) bulbs as headlights with use of projection lenses built into the housing, making the brightness of the headlights not only brighter, but also giving off a glaring sheen towards other drivers at night.

So what's the big deal you might ask? Well, based on my observations, people at night are driving around either with only their parking lights on with their daytime running lights thinking that they're low beams, or driving with no lights on at all and relying on their daytime running lights thinking that they're driving with low beams on, with little or no indication on their dashboard, being all lit up brightly. Or, driving with their high beams on, blinding every driver they pass on the road, not realizing a blue indicator light that their high beams are on.

One other problem is that drivers would also misuse their fog lights by turning them on when there is no fog or inclement rain or snow. Some places make them illegal to use on clear/normal conditions.

Clearly this is an ongoing issue that needs to be dealt with from a driver education point of view, and equipment design point of view. Although some manufacturers have already gotten ahead of this issue already with a couple of solutions.

Instrument cluster on a 2009 Nissan Altima.

Instrument cluster on a 2009 Nissan Altima.

For example, Nissan has programmed the 7th generation (2013 - 2019) Sentra lights to remain on at all times for its Canadian models. both the headlights are on at low beams, side markers, and parking lights on when the vehicle is running, regardless of time of day. As far as I know, it's the only model that Nissan has done out of their lineup in Canada to have its lights on at all times.

Another example is that Volkswagen (at least on the 2012 Jetta I drove as a company vehicle a few years ago) has a feature on some of their models that the instrument cluster dims whenever the vehicle either goes in a tunnel or starts up at night, and forces the driver to switch on their lights, using the same light sensor technology used for automatic on/off headlights feature on some models. Even on the base trims where such a feature is available on higher trim levels, the sensor still detects low light, fading the brightness of the instrument cluster down, forcing the driver to switch on their lights.

The Canadian Government is proposing a law to have both of those features mandated in the next couple of years, in hopes to finally solve this issue of having one's lights on, or lack-thereof, while driving.

To close off, let's remember that we as drivers have a responsibility to be safe on our roads, and it starts by simply being aware of your surroundings, and what your vehicle has when it comes to its lighting equipment. Visibility is important, no doubt about that. Let's make sure we see correctly.

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