Fatal car crashes are three times more likely at night than during the day, per mile driven. The dark makes it more difficult to spot trouble on the road, and the late hour makes it more likely that we share the road with drunk or drowsy drivers.
Older drivers in particular often have trouble at night. Our eyes’ ability to see in limited light declines steadily starting in our 30s. This happens so gradually that many older drivers don’t realize how much night vision they have lost.
Fortunately, minor adjustments to our driving habits and vehicles can make a major difference in our nighttime driving risks…
Five things drivers can do to see and drive better at night…
Shift your gaze down and to the right to avoid being blinded by approaching headlights. Use the edge of the road or the line marking the outside of your lane as a reference point until the headlights have passed.
If you are blinded by oncoming headlights, drive conservatively until your eyes readjust to low light—that typically takes around six seconds—but resist the urge to brake if there are cars close behind you. The drivers behind you might have been temporarily blinded by the oncoming headlights, too, and not notice that you’ve slowed.
Increase your following distance. In clear daytime conditions, three seconds is considered a safe following distance—pick a fixed object along the roadside and count off the seconds from when the car in front of you passes it until you do. At night, five or six seconds is more appropriate, since, among other things, our reaction times are slowed if we’re drowsy.
Check your mirrors frequently. This increases your awareness of what’s happening outside the beams of light cast by your headlights. It also keeps your mind active and attentive while you are driving.
Also: Avoid using cruise control after dark, and alter your speed periodically. This, too, keeps the brain more engaged, combating drowsiness.
Tap your brakes a few times before stopping if there are cars behind you. This makes your brake lights flash—and flashing lights grab the attention of drowsy or drunk drivers much better than steady lights.
Also: Use your blinkers well before you slow to turn. Use your hazard lights if you must stop on the side of a dark road.
If you wear glasses, choose ones that have an antireflective (AR) coating. This clear coating cuts down on lens glare, improving your ability to see at night despite oncoming headlights.
Five ways to prep your car for safer night driving…
Adjust your side mirrors so that you can almost, but not quite, see the outside of your own car in them. Most drivers angle their side mirrors a bit too far to the inside, which allows the headlights of vehicles behind them to reflect into their eyes, reducing their night vision. Side mirrors angled too far inside also increase drivers’ “blind spots” behind and to the side of the car at night and during the day.
Also, don’t forget to switch your center rearview mirror to its night setting after dark to avoid headlights reflecting into your eyes. If your car has a self-dimming rearview mirror, double-check to make sure this function is turned on and working.
Clean your windshield, windows, headlights and taillights frequently. Windshield and window smudges and grime that are barely noticeable during the day can cause tremendous glare when hit by other vehicles’ headlights at night. Remember to clean the inside of the glass, not just the outside.
Dirt also builds up on headlights and taillights, dramatically reducing their brightness over time.
Consider installing enhanced replacement headlight bulbs on your car. These may help you see more of the road ahead for perhaps just $10 or $20 extra per bulb.
Dim your interior gauges slightly. The glow from a bright dashboard can detract from your eyes’ ability to see outside the vehicle at night. Turn gauge brightness down a bit, even if this means that you must strain a little to read the gauges—seeing what’s outside your car is more important than reading dashboard gauges. Also, don’t allow any passengers to have lights on inside the car when you’re driving.
Turn on your headlights at dusk, or use them all the time. Headlights won’t provide much help seeing the road until it’s quite dark—but they do help other drivers see you at all hours, which reduces the odds of collisions.
Using your high-beam headlights can further improve your vision at night. Just be sure to dim them when you detect another vehicle, either coming toward you or traveling ahead of you in the same direction.
Source: William Van Tassel, PhD, manager of driver-training operations at AAA’s national office in Heathrow, Florida. He holds a doctorate in safety education. www.AAA.com