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Throwing Some Light On The Subject Of Lights

Once upon a time, cars were fitted with carbide lights, practically identical to the sort old-school miners wore on their helmets.  These had to be lit with a match, a cigarette lighter or, if you were lucky, a built in flint and steel striking mechanism.  They weren’t in the business long, as electric lights were put on cars in around 1912 or so.  We’ve certainly come a long way since then and we’ve got more than a pair of carbide lanterns.  If you’ve thought about adding some aftermarket tweaks to your vehicle, lights are some of the first things that we can try adjusting or adding.  However, it pays to know what you’re talking about, so let’s look at what’s what.

Headlights

These are your bread and butter basics.  They are there to stop you running into things at night and see where the road goes.  They probably don’t need any introduction, but we’ll touch on them briefly.  They are at the front and they’re white.  The idea is that they illuminate as far as possible when on full beam and are dipped when another vehicle comes the other way.  We know how they work.  However, please remember the following: (1) you turn them on when there’s not enough light to see a person in dark clothing 100 m away, i.e., when the sun is below the horizon; (2) don’t play Headlight Chicken where you see who dips first.

Auxiliary Lights

Auxiliary lights are the ones that aren’t the bog-standard headlights, indicators and taillights.  Not all cars have them when they roll off the factory floor, but many of them can be fitted as after-market mods.  They’re particularly popular on off-roading vehicles, and for good reason.  If you’re going out into the middle of nowhere, you really need to see all the rocks, holes and wandering animals, so more lights are needed (doubly so if you go spotlighting for rabbits).

Let’s have a look at the different sorts and what they’re for.

Fog Lights

Fog lights are for moments when something’s blurring visibility rather than for when it’s dark.  Fog lights tend to keep the beam of light low so that it lights up the road but doesn’t hit the fog or dust and make the problem worse.  If the light hits the dust or fog, then it will be scattered and make visibility worse.

Fog lights can be either amber or white.  They have to turn off and on separately from the headlights.  You’re not supposed to use them at night time as auxiliary lights, and you’re not supposed to use them at all unless the conditions warrant it.  

Daytime Running Lights

Daytime running lights, commonly abbreviated DRLs, are lights fitted to the front of a vehicle that aren’t there so the driver can see but so that they can be seen. They’re supposed to be wired so that they go off when the headlights go on (unless you’re flashing your headlights temporarily to alert another driver about something, like the fact that their boot is open). 

In some places, DRLs are required by law on all new vehicles.  I’m not sure whether I agree with this or not. Certainly, out on the open road on an overcast day, DRLs have alerted me to a grey car on a grey road under a grey sky that would otherwise be hard to pick. However, around town, when every vehicle has DRLs and everything around them seems to have lights or at least be reflective, DRLs fall victim to the “if everyone’s special, then nobody’s special” syndrome and they don’t act as a warning of the presence of another vehicle more than the big metal box on wheels they’re mounted on.

Additional Driving Lights

Additional driving lights are like your headlights but they’re in addition to your headlights.  Instead of having two headlights (or, in quite a few cases, four), you can have four (or six).  Because they’re not as sophisticated as your main headlights, they only come on when the headlights are on high beam and should go off when you dip the headlights.  This is for the simple reason that these auxiliary lights can’t dip, so if they stayed on, they’d dazzle the oncoming driver.  They are sometimes called spotlights or spots. 

The exact laws about where you can install additional driving lights vary slightly from state to state and they seem to be updated all the time. The general idea is that you are supposed to install them symmetrically about the centre of the vehicle’s bumper and that you can’t put them somewhere that could be dangerous, either because they protrude like horns or because they block the driver’s vision or dazzle the driver.  In general, if you put lights on the front of your 4×4 so that they are surrounded by the bull bars rather than sticking out from them in front or on the side, you’re all good. 

Light bars are a subcategory of additional driving light. Light bars are made up of a strip of LED lights, all acting in tandem.  Legally, they are considered to be one light if they all turn on and off at the same time; if different bits turn on and off at different times, each bit of the light bar is considered to be a separate light.  As lights must be mounted symmetrically around the front of the car, you can have a single light bar in the front and centre of your vehicle.

The ultimate in auxiliary lights or spotlights is the roof-mounted rack of lights that you’ll see on some 4x4s and are popular with hunters going out after dark.  These are not legal in all states of Australia under all circumstances, with some states allowing them for use by hunting or when the vehicle is stationary or when the vehicle is off-road.  These rules also seem to be updated every time you turn around, so check what applies to you before going to the effort and expense of buying or fitting them.

Puddle lights

The sole purpose of a puddle light is to cast a patch of light on the ground beside the door – very useful if you don’t want to put your best shoes into a puddle or a pile of dog poo. Some of the cars that have them as standard have a clever design so as well as throwing a patch of light onto the ground, it can also throw down a logo as a shadow – or even a patch of light thanks to LED tech. Aftermarket puddle lights are also out there, some of which have some quite quirky styles.

Tips To Cope With Congested Traffic

We’ve all been there, locked in grid traffic.  And it’s always a bit tempting to slip past slower traffic, cutting back in front to get a little closer to the next set of lights before anyone else does.  Yes, you’re with me! 

These sorts of tedious, testing journeys may occur every day when you’re coming back from work or going to work.  Traffic jams can occur after an accident has taken place or when people are heading away for the holidays all at once.  It might be the popular school run, or it could be that everyone is dispersing all at once from the stadium car park after a big win for the Green and Golds.  These phases of our journeys can be made to feel a little bit easier when you have planned well in advance and if you can keep an open mind that it won’t last forever.  Being a little more flexible and giving yourself more time to get to your destination means that you can breathe a little easier and relax behind the wheel. 

When the roads are busy, take your time and be aware of what’s happening around you.  Try and give other road users the respect they deserve, too.  There are others trying just as hard as you are to do the right thing and get to work on time.  Yes, and they may not be as confident behind the wheel as you, so cut them some slack and don’t cut them off!  If you keep a decent gap between your car and the car in front of you, you can look ahead and see what the traffic is doing, slowing gradually to maintain a nice steady flow with fewer sharp stop and start scenarios.  It also helps to negate the all too common nose to tail accidents.

The same goes for merging lanes.  Problems show up when some drivers stop in the merging lane to wait for a gap.  Then there are those who would rather speed up and get ahead of another car in the line.  Both of these styles aren’t cool, and both styles cause the traffic flow to come to a halt.  Giving each other some space and time keeps the flow moving steadily, which is really what we all want anyway.

When you’re travelling home from a lazy day at the beach, or towing your caravan, or when maybe you just want to revel in the moment and soak up the scenery by travelling along at 70–80 km/h, well, that’s cool, but do keep in mind that there are other road users that have to make an appointment or who need to get to the start of a school rehearsal.  Not everyone can travel this slow below what the open road limit allows, so use those mirrors and be aware of who needs to get past you.  Show them respect because you are holding them up, and they are getting more and more frustrated at being dictated by you choosing to travel at a slower pace on a perfectly good piece of road with a much faster speed limit.  Pull over and let them pass as often as you can, and don’t be the cause of a crash. Especially don’t be that driver who drives slowly along the windy bits or the parts with double yellow lines, then speeds up to the limit as soon as a passing lane or a clear straight comes along.

We all need to be prepared to react to someone’s mistake, poor judgement, or poor decision, whether the roads are busy or not.  Keeping ourselves fresh and aware on the road while being courteous and respectful of others helps our journeys to be safe and enjoyable. 

Ideas to help you stay calm:

  • Play the right sort of music through your sound system – nothing too aggro. You don’t have to listen to soothing spa music, but anything that gets you on edge should be avoided.
  • Practice diaphragmatic breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth, trying to breathe with all of your torso.
  • Remind yourself that all the other drivers are probably in the same boat as you and you all want to get home or to work. Maybe smile at some of the other drivers near you.
  • Put on a really enjoyable podcast or audiobook. With a really good one, you might not want the journey to end!
  • If the traffic is absolutely gridlocked and doesn’t look like it’s moving soon (e.g. if the road closes after a major accident), switch off your engine if applicable and move around while you’re waiting. Or get out your phone or laptop and do what you can for work. Just be aware of when the traffic starts moving again!

Paying For The Roads We Drive On

Across the Tasman, there are plenty of people getting annoyed at the increase in large, damaging potholes that have developed over the last few years on NZ’s tarmac road surfaces, even on main State Highways.  Over there, for quite some time, EV owners have been getting a free ride on the coattails of motorists using an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle and who pay their fair share of road user chargers (RUCs) and/or a large portion of tax levied on the fuel at the pumps for the roading upkeep.  This got me thinking about how should we be fairly introducing EVs to the masses while maintaining our roading systems?  I realize it’s likely to be a bit contentious, but it’s not a question just for New Zealand’s new government to answer; it is also worth giving a bit time to thought and discussion here in Australia. 

In Australia, we pay quite a lot of money into the pool of government funds that is received on yearly vehicle registrations.  According to the Australian general insurance provider, GIO, the average cost for a family car is likely to be around $1240 per year.  The excise tax (an indirect tax charged by government on the sale of a particular good or service) on the common fuels used in Australia (as of 1 February 2022) is $0.442 per litre.  Introducing a direct road user charge as a replacement for fuel excise tax is something that has been bandied about at various high levels of government in Australia.  The idea gains extra weight particularly when you consider the seemingly imminent transition from fossil-fuel and the ICE to electric vehicles (EVs).  

A transition from ICE vehicles to EVs changes the maths and raises eyebrows for those harbouring the more philosophical questions involving fairness and equality for all socioeconomic groups.  Without some form of direct user charge for the EV motorist, they would otherwise make no contribution to the roads’ upkeep. 

If, in the future, we do end up going entirely electric, the current $12 billion or so of annual revenue from fuel tax will need to be replaced from some other scheme or source.  It seems quite economically sound to simply charge for owning and using cars on a scale according to the number of kilometres driven.

Adding another aspect to your discussion on this topic down at the pub might earn you a free drink, so how about considering the damage caused to roads according to the weight of the vehicle driving over it?  A UK report carried out by researchers at the University of Leeds suggested that EVs can damage roads at twice the rate of an equivalent-sized ICE vehicle.  According to the data, the average EV adds 2.24 times more wear and tear to roads than an ICE vehicle of similar size.  They also think that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) with a mass of over 2000 kg contribute 2.32 times the rate of road deterioration. 

So could the fuel excise could be scrapped altogether, and all vehicles should be taxed via a user pays system based on the weight/mass of a vehicle?  This sort of deal might actually help lower emissions in the long run because the lighter the car, the more frugal it is, EVs, hybrids, and ICEs all included.  The cost of road repairs is also related to the CO2 emissions as well, so the fewer road repairs are required, the lower the emissions emitted – well, in theory anyway.  What do you reckon?

Is Driving A Pain In The Neck?

Does this sound familiar? You’ve been on the road driving interstate for hours on end. You finally get to your destination but as you go to move, and it suddenly feels like someone’s driving white-hot nails into your neck or shoulder.  Sometimes, this pain can come on long before you reach your destination.  

This sort of thing can be one reason why some people prefer to fly rather than go on long-distance road trips.  However, if you prefer to drive, as a lot of us do, and you want to see the scenery up close as you travel, then you probably want to stop the long hours of driving becoming a literal pain in the neck.

What causes neck pain when driving?  Two factors are at play here. The first is that your head is kind of heavy, and your neck has to have the muscles to support it – if you’ve ever seen or held a newborn baby, you’ll know that we aren’t born with the ability to hold up our big brains inside our big heads, and these muscles have to be developed pronto.  The second factor is that when driving, we tend to keep our heads and necks in more or less one position the whole time: on the road ahead, with the occasional head-check of the wing mirrors. Being forced into one position for a long time causes the muscles to cramp.  I don’t know if the heads-up displays found in most modern vehicles make the problem worse or not.

The issue of support is easy enough to deal with. For a start off, adjust your headrest. Most of us know how to adjust the lumbar support (if your driver seat has this; many do) and the angle of the seat to the right position. If you don’t know how to do this properly, the idea is to have your seat back at an angle so your hips and shoulders are stacked above each other (the seat and the back should be at an angle of 90–100°). If you like to slump or slouch back, your neck will have to go at an angle it doesn’t like for long periods so you can see ahead. Fixing the angle of your seat and making sure that your lumbar support is sitting nicely in the small of your back will go a long way to avoiding neck pain while driving.  Also make sure that the head rest is touching the back of your head.

However, even with the cushiest of seats in the perfect position, your neck will get tired and sore after a while. This means that you may need to take other steps during long-distance drives to avoid your neck aching.

The best tips I’ve found for avoiding neck pain while driving are the following:

  1. Get a neck support pillow. You might feel that you look silly wearing something that looks like you’ve just had neck surgery, but at least you’ll feel a lot more comfortable. These pillows will take some of the weight of your head so your neck doesn’t have to work so hard.
  2. Adjust your hand position during long drives.  Yes, we all know that 10 to 2 is the best position to have your hands on the steering wheel, but keeping your arms in this position will cramp the trapezius muscles (that’s a big group of muscles in your neck and shoulder).  During a long drive, change your hand positions around.
  3. Chill out. Many of us tend to clench our jaws and tense our shoulders when we feel stressed.  This leads to agonizingly tight shoulders.  As you drive (assuming that you’re not in a high-pressure situation), do a quick survey of your neck, jaw and shoulders.  Are you holding your stress in these parts of your body?  Do a few deep breathing exercises as you drive to help dispel the stress.
  4. Massage. Use self-massage (with one hand on the back of your neck), a massage seat or a helpful passenger riding shotgun to give the muscles in your shoulders and neck a quick squeeze and rub.
  5. Move your neck. Even while you’re driving, you can move your neck and shoulders – without taking your eyes off the road.  Shrug your shoulders and try to roll them.  Do that neck roll and one-sided shrug you see tough guys and gals in the movies do before a fight.  Slide your neck from side to side while staying level like a belly dancer.  Tilt your head from side to side like a stereotypical Indian. Nod and shake your head.  As long as you keep your eyes on the road ahead, you’re all good.
  6. Take a break! The fact that your neck is sore is a sure sign that you’ve been sitting in one position for too long. Your legs could probably do with a break as well.  Pull over and stretch your legs. As well as all the neck exercises mentioned above, remember to move your arms and do a few twists of your spine as well.

Obviously, if the traffic is heavy or if you’re driving through the middle of the city, then you may not be able to do all of these. However, do what you can when you can, and you’ll find that driving is less of a pain in the neck.