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Are Daytime Running Lights Dangerous?

Evolution is a part of our lives and nowhere more evident than in the growth and change to the humble horseless carriage. From an open cabin with a tiny horsepower or two, to nimble sports cars and big four wheel drives, there have been plenty of changes along he way.

As far as safety developments, we’ve seen the introduction of disc brakes, improvements in chassis design, changes to the structure of the glass in the windows, as well as an array of sensors and other technology that has transformed the modern-day automobile.

This extends to lighting technology, which once upon a time may have seemed a foreign concept. But we’ve seen evolution from lantern candles used with a horseless carriage, to halogen gas filled lamps. They have, in turn, given way to the now commonplace ‘LED’ or Light Emitting Diode, which is a form of technology that gives us a brighter, whiter, purer light, and can be seen in any colour of the spectrum.

Fast forward to 2023 and it is a regular occurrence to see DRL, or Daytime Running Lights, included among the features of your next car. But oddly enough, this new feature raises safety issues of its own.

In every car you’ll find the switch to your headlights, whether it is mounted on a stalk coming from the steering column, or a dial near the driver’s knee. This switch activates the headlights fitted to the vehicle. But not all vehicles are equal. In some vehicles you will find the switch has an “Auto” setting.

Why is this crucial? Simple. Auto means the headlights will light by themselves once a sensor determines light levels have fallen far enough to make seeing forward clearly difficult. Those that do not have Auto require drivers to make a judgement call as to activating their headlights.

But it’s also here that LED technology, along with the DRL situation, raises some risks. Let’s take the example of a vehicle with a strip of LED DRLs above each headlight and also has globe lit driving lights in the bottom left and right corner of the front bumper.

Invariably these cars either do not have an Auto headlight function, or they have a driver that is unaware of a key issue. The D in DRL means “daytime”, so they’re not intended to be used as a substitue for your actual headlights. This is because their penetration and forward spread is nowhere near that of the headlights designed and fitted.

In some cases, cars may not even light their tail lights when ‘Auto’ is selected. So while the driver might have some visibility of the road ahead, drivers behind may not clearly see the vehicle in front of them.

In both cases, however, there are safety issues, and it’s time we start addressing the issue with better driver education.