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Thoughts On Night Driving

headlight-types-and-functions_auto-headlights-at-night-02_02Daylight Savings has come to an end in New South Wales and all the other states crazy enough to fiddle around with clocks for no real reason. This means that a lot of us are going to end up doing a bit more night-time driving.

It’s hard to say whether driving at night or driving during the day is better.  During the daytime, you don’t have the issue about out-driving how far you can see (you know – the situation where your stopping distance is, say, 100 metres and you can only see 90 metres: not good).  However, during the night, you are less distracted by billboards and other things on the side of the road that compete for your attention when you really ought to have your eyes on the road ahead.

Driving when it’s dark has other advantages.  Because most other drivers have their headlights on, you can spot them more easily at a distance. It’s particularly good when you’re coming up to an intersection: you can see the lights of an oncoming car approaching from the side even if there is a whacking big fence that would normally block your view of the other road.  Similarly, you also get a hint that something’s coming up the other side of the hill or around the corner, especially if there’s a wee bit of a haze in the air.

However, headlights have their hazards.  For one thing, it can be a bit tricky to estimate the distance of an oncoming car when all you have to go by is a bright light and next to no parallax for your binocular vision to work on.  If you’re a more cautious driver, like me, you tend to think that things are much closer than they really are so you don’t overtake and end up waiting for ages and thinking that you could have nipped past that slowpoke with the caravan anyway. If you’re over-confident, then you end up having some very close calls when you realise that what you thought was an oncoming vehicle so far off that the two lights looked like one was actually a motorbike.

You also have the problem with being dazzled. Modern headlights are beautifully bright and don’t use an awful lot of power to produce plenty of lumens (that’s the official unit of how much light something gives; candelas and lux are other options but that’s beside the point).  That’s great if you happen to be the driver of a vehicle with said modern headlights. If you are the driver of the car facing the other way, you’re left blinking and dazzled. And that’s even if the headlights have been dipped in some cases. If they haven’t been dipped, you’ll be seeing nothing but the headlights and then the greenish after-images for some time afterwards.  Not good if you’re keeping an eye out for your turn-off.

We all know that we’re supposed to dip our headlights but there is a bit of confusion about exactly when to dip them. Ok, the official rules say that you have to dip them when you’re 200 metres behind the vehicle in front or if you’re 200 metres away from an oncoming car. But how do you tell 200 metres in the middle of nowhere when you’ve got nothing much to estimate distance by?  It’s not exactly time to start counting the white lines in the middle of the road and using these as a rough estimate.  It’s probably best to dip them sooner rather than later out of courtesy – the chances that there’s a roo or a pedestrian on the road in that little gap between where your lights reach and where the other driver’s lights reach are pretty low.

Even 200 metres behind may be too close in the case of some drivers.  I remember vividly the time that a large 4×4 came up behind the Ford Fairmont  I had at the time and kept the lights on full beam even though he/she was much closer than 200 metres. Even fiddling around with the rear vision mirror didn’t stop me getting dazzled – grrr!

What do you do if you’re dazzled?  Ideally, you’re supposed to pull over until your eyes clear (here’s hoping there isn’t a car or a signpost between you and the kerb or the shoulder of the road that you can’t see thanks to being dazzled).  You can also avoid being dazzled by an oncoming car if you look to the side of them (i.e. to the left lane ahead of you). This is easier said than done, seeing as the human eye naturally locks onto light, especially in the darkness.

Of course, the real problem with Daylight Savings changeovers and with night driving in general is the problem with fatigue.  If you feel yourself getting light headed while your eyelids get heavy and the corners of your mind fill with red fog, don’t be a stupid berk.  Pull over and have a catnap.

Safe and happy driving,



  1. Richard Milner says:

    While I agree with the points made in this article, I feel it should also be pointed out that wildlife such as kangaroos and wombats are much more prevalent at night. To minimize the chance of an accident drivers should slow down at night and also maintain a high beam as long as possible. Finally of course keep an extra look out for animals on the road especially on rural roads.

    April 20th, 2015 at 6:42 pm

  2. Brian Gray says:

    A little known remedy against dazzle problems is to close one eye and as soon as the dazzle source has passed open it again, there you are with no dazzle but merely monocular vision which is a much less problem.

    April 20th, 2015 at 8:16 pm