Turn Off Your Effing Driving Lights!
If you stop to think about it, one of the most profound examples of the trust and interconnectedness that we humans share with each other every day involves driving down two-lane roads. Or more specifically, driving down a small road and passing another motorist traveling in the opposite direction. Its something that happens thousands or even million times of day all over the world. Yet think of how narrow the gap between a non-event and a life-changing one can be, and it’s truly astounding that there are not more accidents. Just think of the physics involved with two 5,000 pound objects going 45 mph towards each other, separated by only a few feet and maybe a yellow stripe painted down the middle of the asphalt. All it would take is a moment of driver distraction (and there are plenty of those in modern automobiles), or an icy patch, or a tire blowout, or road debris, or a bee flying around in the cabin, or any number of things and BAM!, one car crosses over that ephemeral line and catastrophe ensues.
What an amazing amount of trust we place in strangers we’ll never meet, hoping that they’ll operate their vehicles competently. We enter into an unspoken, short-lived contract with every car or truck we pass on the road. The main point of that contract being, I’ll stay on my side of the road, and you stay on yours, and we’ll both go on our way safely. Basically, its taking the Golden Rule (Do Unto Others…) out for a spin. But there are also colloraries to this rule, which involve not doing things to hinder other drivers, in the hopes that they’ll do the same for you. One obvious example of that is the use of high beams, which make things much safer for the high beam-er, but not so good for the high beam-ee. By and large, most people don’t seem to have much of a problem with dimming their high beams when they see an approaching vehicle. If they forget, the other driver usually just briefly turns theirs on, and the offender will typically turn their high beams off right away. This system has worked fairly well for as long as cars have had high-beam headlights, since all of us occasionally forget that our high-beams are on (myself included).
But over the past few years, a new public nuisance has begun to proliferate on our public thoroughfares, called “driving lights”. These purport to making our roads safer at night by better illuminating our path, and in the hands of responsible drivers that can be the case. The problem is that some driving lights can be as blinding as high beams are, but drivers who would be quick to turn their high beams off at the sight of an approaching car at don’t feel the same obligation when their driving lights are on. How this is legal is beyond me. I suppose that the brightness of the driving lights don’t exceed that of the low beams, at least in theory, but in practice having four bright lights shining at your eyeballs does seem to be twice as bright as having only two. Perhaps the lumens are the same, but the bottom line is that driving at night towards an oncoming vehicle with driving lights on can be much more difficult than it is without. Of course not all driving lights are created equal, some vehicle makes are worse than others. And aftermarket lights can be aimed all over the place, depending on how well they’re mounted.
The worst offenders seem to be pickup trucks and SUVs, possibly because they are higher. Trucks also tend to be more likely to have a heavy load in the back or towing a trailer, which greatly compounds the problem. A pickup truck going down the road with its rear end down low and driving lights on, can be worse than that same truck running empty using its high beams, yet somehow that is legal.
It all comes down that very basic social contract we enter into whenever we get behind the wheel. I won’t mess you with if you don’t mess with me, and we’ll both get to where we want to be without any fuss. In my opinion, driving around with your driving lights on all the time violates that social contract, especially if they are a really bright pair, which most of the newer ones seem to be.
The crazy thing about most driving lights is that they really don’t add that much to the actual ability of the driver to see things at night, at least not in proportion to the amount of visual distress they can cause to the poor bastard coming the other way. The cost-benefit relationship is severely skewed one way, for it “costs” one driver’s ability to see more than it “benefits” the other. But the “cost” can be far greater to the blinded, than any benefit the blinder is gaining. The only benefit that additional driving lights seem to have on busy roads is to neutralize the other lights that are blinding you.
Personally I own three vehicles, a Saab and two Toyota trucks. The Saab and the Landcruiser have aftermarket driving lights. I live fourteen miles up a rural two lane road, and often make the drive up at night or early in the morning without even encountering another vehicle. One is far more likely to encounter a deer, elk, or fog on the drive than another driver, and so I use my driving lights, very carefully aimed, to hopefully see those dangers better. But if I have them on, and see oncoming headlights, the high beams go off and so do the driving lights. It would make me feel like a completely selfish bastard to project either one of those towards a fellow motorist and human being. Once I get to town, the driving lights stay off, period. Why is it so difficult for people to show other drivers some basic respect?
When I see a vehicle with especially egregious lights heading in my direction at night, sometimes I’ll flash my driving lights at them. I’ve yet to have anyone turn theirs off in response, probably because in a pinch people probably can’t remember where the switch is located (since they never turn it off). Once I rented a Hyundai which had its driving lights already turned on, and had to scour the owner’s manual to find out how to turn them off. It made me feel like a complete A - Hole driving around with them that first night, except for when I encountered others coming in the opposite direction who were doing the same.
So what can be done to make people aware of what they’re doing, and get them to stop? My only solution, other than to try and increase public awareness, is to turn my driving lights back on when someone is shining theirs at me. It’s a lousy response, but what other tools are there in my toolbox? If enough people start doing the same, maybe people will start thinking of their driving lights in the same manner that they do their high beams, and the roads can become safer for everyone.
Until then, if you driver down the road at night with your driving lights on, and some dickhead flashes his back at you for doing it, its probably me!