Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Surviving Nighttime Driving

Contributed by Norm Nyhuis, Trainer / Consultant, Evergreen Safety Council

As you read this, the darker, drizzlier, fall weather is upon us. We take other precautions with respect to the changing seasons, so let’s extend that thought, and review some of the skills and precautions necessary to drive safely in darkness.

The combination of darkness and wet rainy weather can combine to cause us to simply see things that just aren’t there. A friend of mine, who lives on the east coast recently told me of a situation when he discovered - in just enough time to avoid a collision - that after many hours on the road, he thought a slender silver birch tree was an extension of the white lane divider line, and only discovered just in the nick of time that the road actually curved to the right. He said, “I just about followed what appeared to be the center line, right into the woods!”

There are times when we anticipate and sometimes are fearful that we will encounter a known hazard. I once lived in an area labeled as a “range area”; livestock often would escape their fenced pastures and cross the road. The problem was not limited to domestic stock, but the local deer seemed to enjoy the company of the cattle, and I expect their abundant food source, as well. A dark colored animal; a cow, horse or even pigs, can be nearly impossible to see under certain conditions, unless they turn their heads and you can make out the “glow” of their eyes (the light reflected by your headlights) The northern states, several provinces of Canada and Alaska have specific traffic rules for avoiding encounters with moose. The physics of a speeding automobile colliding with a one-ton moose are impressive. I always worried a bit about having a close encounter with one of these animals. Once I was fooled into making a rapid stop, only to find that the “deer” I thought I saw in the road way was just a trick of the shadows and reflections on the wet road surface. I guess you could say I thought about it so much, my mind conjured up the very image I was hoping to avoid. No one was with me at the time, so I thankfully didn’t have to explain my near panic stop.

Fatigue can often increase the occurrence of “road phantoms”. We often feel pressured to make “just a few more miles” but that only makes the problem worse, as the farther we drive, the more fatigued we become and not only do our eyes play tricks on us, but our perception time and reaction time is also reduced, making taking evasive action, when really needed, even more delayed.

Here are some tips to help you drive more safely at night:

Use your low beams on sharp curves – Negotiating a sharp curve and the posted speed limit, at night can lead to being surprised by an on coming car, maybe crowding the center line. The gleam of your high beams will washout the glow of the oncoming car’s lights, you simply won’t know they are there until you are nearly on them.

To warn on coming drivers on a sharp curve, flick your lights from low to high and quickly back to low again – A retired highway patrol office, suggested this technique, “It changes the intensity of the light at the apex of the curve, and helps other drivers know you’re coming.” Do this of course only if there are no cars visible, coming toward you. The Washington State Driver’s Guide specifies that you must dim your lights at a minimum of 500 ft from any approaching vehicle.

Increase your following distance at night – There are two good reasons to do so: The Washington Driver’s guide suggests 4 seconds following distance under conditions of good visibility – meaning daylight hours. They suggest adding at least another second’s distance after dark or when ever conditions of visibility are impaired by rain, fog, blowing dust or anything that reduces your sight distance. The Washington Driver’s Guide also states that you must dim your lights when following another driver at a minimum of 300 ft behind them. This practice prevents blinding the other driver by temporarily reducing their night vision due to your bright lights.

Don’t out drive your headlights – The headlights on our modern cars are much brighter than the lights on older cars; this is both good and bad. While the brighter lights do help us see farther down the road, it can lead to a false sense of security. The driving dynamics of the situation, the speed, weight of the vehicle, the level of attention or distraction of the driver at that moment, taken together may mean we are unable to take corrective or avoidance actions soon enough to prevent a collision. Simply put, if you can’t identify a hazard, (perception time) initiate and actually complete the required emergency action, (reaction time) in the time it takes your car to travel the distance illuminated by your headlight, you’re driving too fast and “out driving your headlights”.

Highway engineers have done a good job of making our roads safer with the addition of the road edge stripe (aka “fog stripes”) on the right edge of the roadway, using reflectorized paints and reflectors to make the lane divider stripes, “rumble strips” often on the road edge and at times in addition to the centerline, as well as reflectorized and illuminated road way signs. All of these technical upgrades help but, the final responsibility for safe nighttime driving hasn’t changed: it is still in the hands of the one behind the wheel, just as it was for the generations of drivers that have preceded us.

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