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Home » Archives » March 2013 » Safety Tip Presentation: Vehicle Lighting

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Safety Tip Presentation: Vehicle Lighting

lighting-1 (24k image)

Adapted from a “Safety Tip” presented to a group of NASA engineers, 2011.

Due to the high Integral of Danger associated with driving, discussion of a seemingly minor aspect of motoring can be more important than other safety topics that may initially appear to us as more dangerous or threatening.

Learning about vehicle lighting may help us understand and react correctly in a split-second driving situation. It will also help us make rational decisions about vehicle purchases that may someday help protect both ourselves as drivers, and our passengers.

Vehicle lighting is controlled by Federal Law. Why bother having federal laws for the lights on our cars? Because lighting really makes a difference in traffic situations.

That said, US vehicle safety laws have, in some cases, fallen behind European law. In some cases, current US law is simply incorrect.

For years, US law mandated inferior Sealed Beam (Lantern Lamp) headlamps. The law, which dated back to the 1940’s, was finally replaced in 1983. Today, most US spec vehicle headlamps are very close to their European counterparts.

Depending on your car’s Headlights, you may be able to easily upgrade to brighter/whiter headlamps without modifying or stressing your car's electrical system. Always replace headlamps in pairs, and avoid childish blue replacement headlamps.

Automatic headlights are almost ubiquitous these days, but be warned that in certain circumstances they can cause problems. They can lead to complacency, and complacency behind the wheel is never a good thing. Automatic headlights may not come on in rainy daytime conditions, thus not illuminating the rear running lights. (See Daytime Running Lights). Make sure you know how and when to operate your lights manually, even if you have automatic headlamps.

Use your High Beams/Distance Beams at night when there are no on-coming cars. You must consciously use the dim/bright switch when driving at night. You cannot choose to ignore that switch any more than you can choose not to be bothered with operating the steering wheel or brakes.

Lastly, if you have Foggy, Scratched, or Yellowed Plastic Headlamp Lenses, you are showing the world than you are not “Bright”. Have them fixed or replaced. I personally try to avoid cars with plastic headlamp covers, but today, they are almost unavoidable.

[This article is one of an on-going series of Motoring Safety articles on To find more articles on Safety, use this search link.]

Fog Lights
The Law in the US (and some other countries) actually requires Fog Lights to operate incorrectly. The law requires the Low-Beam headlights to be on for the fog lights to work. This can cause white-out in heavy fog. (Main Beams or High Beams make it worse).

Some newer cars may have a software setting for “European mode” (or some such terminology) that allows the the fog lights to work without the headlamps being on.

Even when used with the Low or Dipped beams, Fog Lights can be used to increase total light output, and to “fill in” the road near and to the sides of the vehicle. This may, in some conditions, help detect approaching animals or other items in the road sooner. On the other hand, driving with your fog lights on can cause glare on the road directly in front of the vehicle, which can "desensitize" your eyes or interfere with your night vision. Learn how to turn on your car's fog lights and use them when appropriate.

Daytime Running Lights
Do you know the difference between Headlamps, Parking lamps, Fog Lamps, and Daytime Running Lamps (Sometimes incorrectly called Driving Lights)? They are not just for cosmetics. While there is debate in the industry, there is at least some evidence that DRL's do reduce crashes.

Headlamps, even in daylight, are mandatory for motorcycles. DRL's or Daytime use of the Headlamps increase the mind’s ability to "see" an approaching car, even in full sunlight.

DRL's have been required in the UK since 1987, and in Canada since 1990. While not yet required in th US, better models have them, but like all other aspects of driving, they can cause problems if used improperly. DRL's may trick the driver into assuming the Headlamps, and thus the Rear Running lights, are on, when in fact they are not. In certain driving conditions, this could cause the vehicle to not be seen from the rear until it is too late.

Rear Fog Lights
In another example of US law being less than helpful, Rear Fog Lights are required in the EU, but almost unheard of in the US. Rear Fog Lights are one or two bright, red lights on the back of the car, separate from the rear Running Lights or Brake Lights. They are manually operated by the driver to increase visibility from the rear in heavy rain or fog.

If you buy an European car in the US, or a car that is sold in other countries, you may find that the Rear Fog Lights have been disabled or re-purposed as additional brake lights. This is because, unfortunately, most American's don't know what they are or how to use them.

If your car's Rear Fog Lights have been been crippled by the manufacturer, they may be able to be converted back to correct operation by a mechanic. If your car does not have Rear Fog Lights at all, you have 2 alternatives -- you can always have it crushed and buy a better car, or just don't drive in the rain. OK, that might be a bit drastic, but now you know something to ask the dealer about next time you car car shopping. If enough people ask, the message will get back to car manufactures. In the mean time don't turn on your Hazard Indicators while continuing to drive. It is illegal in some states, and if you are below the speed of other traffic, it is dangerous. If you do not feel comfortable continuing at a safe speed, pull Well Clear of the roadway, stop, and then use your hazard flashers.

What's a CHiMSL?
The CHiMSL is the Central High Mounted Stop Light, commonly called a 3rd Brake Light. Data has shown significant reduction in rear-end collisions with this light. It became law in the US in 1986. This is one case where the US was ahead of most of the rest of the world. CHiMSL's became required in Europe in 1998. If you drive a classic car or truck that does not have a 3rd brake light, add one.

Turn Indicators
Use your Turn Signals! If it is really too much effort for you to operate your turn signals, you are really sick... Go see a doctor immediately. If it takes too much mental effort... well, I think that situation is self explanatory. There is no excuse. Your turn signals let other drivers know your intentions. If we always knew what was coming, we would never have an accident.

Go look at the back of your car. Do you have separate, yellow (amber) turn indicators? Two recent NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) studies show significant reductions in accidents on vehicles with amber turn lamps, as compared to those with red. Rear Turn Signals on some American vehicles (especially light trucks) are still Red, and even worse - sometimes combined with the Brake Lights.

Again, US law is a little behind the times with respect to turn signals. Side turn indicators are required every place in the world except North America. Even thought they are not yet required, better US market cars and light trucks do have them, sometimes mounted on the side mirrors. Front side marker lights that flash with the turn signals, and are visible from the sides are an acceptable alternative.

Turn Indicators are not just for going around corners. Always use your turn indicators to signal your intent to change lanes. If a vehicle (especially a motorcycle) is in your blind spot, and sees your side turn indicators, they can take evasive action, or hopefully alert you to their presence.

Lastly, Lane Departure Warning Indicators help emphasize use of turn indicators for lane changes. You do know what a Lane Departure Warning Indicator is don't you?

Disclaimer: This article does not suggest that you purchase, drive, or ride in any particular vehicle, or that you refrain from doing any of those things. This article is to be read, and contemplated while not driving. It does not tell you what to do or not to do in any actual driving situation. It attempts to objectively convey information about automotive engineering topics only. Ultimately you are responsible for any use of this information, or any actions you take. Always drive safely.

Posted by: carcynic on 08 March 13 @ 11:52 PM EST [Article Anchor]

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