The Drive: Use your headlights to see – and to be seen

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 29, 2013 - 5:29 PM
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File photo: A driver breaks a cardinal rule of the road by not driving with headlights on in bad conditions.

Photo: Steve Handwerker, AP

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With our unrelenting bitter cold and snow, safety-conscious organizations such as AAA are constantly reminding us about the importance of keeping our vehicles in working order. Their helpful tips include everything from checking battery power to properly inflating tires to making sure coolants are at the correct levels.

They tell us to inspect our brakes, belts and hoses, make sure our windshield wipers work and to pack that winter survival kit. Many safety experts also suggest having a fully charged cellphone at the ready just in case.

That’s all sage advice, but there is one practical thing that many motorists often overlook, and it’s one thing that some experts say can reduce the chances of getting into a crash by more than 25 percent. Drivers need to turn their headlights on, says Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the car review site www.dogandlemon.com.

“The science is absolutely clear. If motorists can see you, they can avoid colliding with you,” the road safety campaigner said. “Pedestrians are also less likely to blindly walk out in front of your car.”

Minnesota law requires that motorists run their headlights only from sunset to sunrise; in rain, snow, sleet or hail, or during conditions of insufficient light or adverse weather that limit visibility to 500 feet or less. But what constitutes insufficient light? And what are “adverse conditions?”

Many European countries get around that by requiring motorists to drive with headlights on at all times. Some studies have found that running headlights during the day can reduce daytime multivehicle crashes by 25 percent and cut daytime car-pedestrian fatalities by 28 percent. Studies also show a modest drop in injury accidents and property damage crashes.

Until they burn out, headlights are an afterthought for most drivers, says Brian Noble, marketing manager for Sylvania Automotive Lighting. But they should be checked as routinely as other car components, and changed when they are not shining brightly.

“The improved visibility as a result of whiter, brighter headlights adds precious seconds to a driver’s reaction time,” he said, pointing out that brighter headlights will improve visibility both in front of the driver and to the side. “Seconds are vital in a situation where it can mean the difference between a crash and a near-crash.”

Winter offers its own hazards

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 39 percent of weather-related crashes occur in winter when slush, snow or ice are present. But winter presents other hazards such as decreased daylight, shadows and other low-light conditions that hamper drivers’ ability to see.

“Eighty percent of your driving decisions are based on visibility,” said Lauren Fix, a nationally recognized automotive expert known as the Car Coach. “The secret to a safe winter drive is to see and be seen.”

Speaking of seeing, Fix says drivers of newer vehicles with backup cameras might forget to clear away snow and dirt from the lens.

Another way to increase visibility, Fix says, is to have plenty of winter-grade windshield fluid on hand because summer grade is more likely to freeze when the temperature drops below 32 degrees.

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.

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