Road authorities agree that night driving presents unique challenges, increased risks and numerous deaths and injuries. It is estimated by the National Safety Council in the U.S. that traffic death rates are three times greater at night than during the day.
Many drivers believe that there is safety in reduced traffic and are unaware of how to deal with the challenges of driving at night, sharing the roads with those less responsible road users venturing onto the roads.
The most obvious way to avoid the dangers inherent to night driving is to simply not drive at night – and for long travels to use other forms of transport if they are available.
While we advise against driving at night, where possible, we recognize that some people have to drive at night and cannot delay travel for daytime and good weather. In this section we would like to share advice and provide information that may make driving at night a bit safer.
Why is driving at night so dangerous?
There are many reasons for the increased risks. They include:
- Decreased visibility. Depth perception, colour recognition, and peripheral vision are compromised after sundown.
- Many inexperienced young drivers are on the roads at night and do not have the skills and concentration that comes with experience.
- Elderly drivers need more light to see as well as the younger drivers.
- Vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and bikers are often not clearly visible to motorists and vice versa.
- Reduced ability to judge speed and distance at night.
- Sharing the roads with many drunk drivers and pedestrians returning from bars, parties etc. late at night.
- Sharing the roads with fatigued drivers after a hard day of work or those who have been driving long distances, including truck drivers.
- Vehicle lighting cannot illuminate very far, allowing little time and space to react and bring the vehicle to a safe stop.
- Wild animals venture onto the road, especially in areas where fences are broken or removed. Some, like large kudu, are said to have a compulsion to leap in front of approaching headlights, sometimes with serious results for the vehicle and the driver.
- Criminals are often lurking in the dark, placing objects in the road that cause drivers to stop, or even crash, so that they can rob drivers and occupants.
How can we make driving at night safer?
Not every risk is beyond our control. We can make informed decisions and with the necessary pre-trip planning and adjustments to driving behaviour we are indeed able to make our driving at night safer.
Driver Fitness: Vision
- The most important aspect to consider is how far we can see clearly at night. If your night vision is not good, you should never drive at night.
- Even with good night vision, we must acknowledge that we cannot see as much and as far as we can during daytime, making our road environment more dangerous at night.
- We are dependent on artificial light, hence our reduced ability to see road signs, vehicles, pedestrians and other hazards.
- The headlights have a very limited lighting effect to the sides of the road ahead, which makes the range of our vision quite narrow compared with daytime driving.
- We are also less able to pick up sudden movements quickly and respond to them effectively at night.
- Our eyes often take time to adjust from the wide range of light from pitch dark to strong light and also when there is an intermittent stream of headlights from approaching vehicles, creating something like a slow-motion strobe-lighting effect.
- Many drivers suffer from night blindness (nyctalopia), a condition that makes it hard to see in poor light or at night.
- Night blindness leads to decreased vision at night or in poor light, peripheral vision problems and possible loss of central vision – all factors that increase the safety risks of driving at night.
We recommend that drivers go for eye check-ups, especially if they believe that they might experience symptoms of night blindness. The older a driver gets the more frequent these check-ups should be.
Age can also make eyes more sensitive to glare and eye sensitivity, which could also be increased by medical conditions such as cataracts.
Driver Fitness: Alertness & Avoiding Fatigue
Driver distractions are more than conversations on the cellular phone or the sending of text messages. They also include other factors that reduce our ability to focus on the road at night – such as fatigue/ tiredness and alcohol.
- Driver fatigue/ tiredness/ drowsiness make driving more difficult by reducing concentration and slowing reaction time.
- Many drivers fall into a “micro sleep” where the driver unknowingly falls asleep for a mere second or two at a time. A micro sleep is virtually undetectable by a fatigued driver
- Not only may the body may get fatigued; but also our eyes from staring straight ahead for a prolonged period of time.
- Alcohol not only impairs driving ability but also induces fatigue. Do not drive at night after drinking alcohol, even if your alcohol levels are within the legal limits.
- Alcohol not only affects driver vision at night, but it can also cause many pedestrians to cross or stumble onto roads while intoxicated.
- Avoid smoking when driving as the nicotine and carbon monoxide hamper night vision.
- Stay alert to the fact that even though you may feel wide alert, many others may not be.
What can/should we do to remain alert?
- Do not start the drive if you are not well rested.
- Avoid taking medication or foods that may make you drowsy.
- Plan ahead – it helps to have a passenger to converse with or share the driving duties.
- Try to avoid long trips in the dark – if this is not possible, scheduling regular breaks are important. Make frequent stops for light snacks and exercise, while remaining vigilant about crime.
- Do not fight your biological clock – If Tired Stop, Rest at a Safe Spot!
Vehicle Roadworthiness and Adjustments Required
A well maintained vehicle will allow for safer driving at night and reduce the risks of the driver getting stranded alongside the road! We would like to offer advice on aspects to consider before turning the ignition:
- Properly aligned headlights will help you see the road better and also prevent you from blinding oncoming drivers. We advise having them checked regularly with your dealer / mechanic.
- Check that all exterior lights work properly – front and rear, brake lights, turn signals and high beams.
- It is best to ensure that both left and right lights work at the same level of efficiency or to replace them in pairs.
- They must also be clean as dirty headlights can greatly reduce efficiency.
- Your brake lights need to give drivers behind you the critical warning and reaction time when you need to make an emergency stop.
- Ensure your windows and headlights are clean (inside and outside). Dirty windows can add to glare and impair vision, making it more difficult to see.
- Clean windows will also prevent frost, ice or condensation from placing further restrictions on visibility.
- Check that there is enough windshield washer liquid in the tank.
- Your windscreen wipers must be fully functional as risks increase driving in bad weather at night.
- Adjust your vehicle’s interior lighting – dim your dashboard lights to prevent stray reflections and improve forward vision.
- Avoid using any other light inside your vehicle while driving.
- Exterior mirrors that are properly aligned not only reduce blind spots, they also reduce glare from vehicles behind you.
- Adjust outside mirrors so that the bodywork of the vehicle is just outside the driver’s view.
- Aim the mirrors slightly downward so that you can move your head out of the path of lights reflected in them.
- This may allow you to keep the other car’s headlights out of your eyes, and prevent them from temporarily blinding you with their high beams.
- Most rear-view mirrors can be tilted to a “day-night” setting, which changes the angle of the reflective surface and appears to dim light reflected in the mirror.
Using the Lights safely and effectively when driving at night
- Do not delay using the headlights – use them earlier rather than later to make yourself more visible to other road users.
- Always be careful with your high beams so that you don’t blind others and cause a head-on collision. Do not drive with only the parking lights on, ever.
- Be considerate with use of full beam. Don’t use full beam in town.
- After driving with your high beams on, do not forget to dim your lights for oncoming traffic.
- If an oncoming vehicle fails to dim their high beams, be very cautious as to how you alert such a driver by flashing your lights.
- If well away from the oncoming vehicle and you decide to do so swiftly, don’t leave your high beams on in spite or to “get back” at the oncoming driver and ‘teach them a lesson’. Two light-blinded drivers is even more dangerous that one who can’t see clearly.
- Slow down if the other driver is blinding you with his high beam – it is not the correct response to match his mistake by doing the same. Think Safety!
- If the oncoming vehicle does not dim their lights, look towards the left side of the road [countries driving left side of the road] and try not to look directly at the oncoming headlights – rather use your peripheral vision.
- Look at the lane marker or yellow left edge marking as a guide, then look quickly ahead to determine the other vehicle’s position. Keep doing this until you have passed the other vehicle.
- Oncoming truck drivers appearing at the crest of a hill, being seated much higher than you, may be blinded by your main beam lights much earlier than you are by theirs. Always dip your lights before you can see the headlights of a vehicle about to come over a rise.
- When following another vehicle, keep your headlights on low beam to avoid blinding the driver ahead of you via his rear view mirror.
- Do not use high beams when it’s foggy – they will reduce your own ability to see and may temporarily blind other drivers.
- If your vehicle is equipped with fog lamps, use them with your low beams only when there is fog and not for ordinary night driving.
- Fog lamps are a bit more effective at cutting through fog, but their intensity can hurt the eyes of other motorists if it’s a clear night.
Defensive / Safe Driving Techniques when driving at Night
Driving at night requires defensive and thoughtful driving. We would like to offer some suggestions on safe driving techniques:
- Plan your route so you’re aware of any steep descents, sharp corners and other hazards specific to that route.
- Use your headlights from sunset until sunrise and during periods of poor visibility and bad weather. When in doubt as to whether you should use your lights, turn them on!
- Remain very alert to vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclist, and avoid any distractions when driving.
- Avoid looking directly into oncoming headlights – you may be dazzled. Look at the left hand side of the road and drive well to the left. If blinded –.rather slow down drastically, tapping your foot brake pedal as necessary to warn drivers behind.
- Adjust your speed and be ready to slow down – allow yourself the time and space to react to whatever comes out of the dark.
- A safe speed should enable you to brake or manoeuvre to avoid a hazard without endangering those around you, and to stop within the distance you can see to be clear.
- On rural and less well maintained roads a slower speed is necessary to see pot-holes ahead and to evade driving through them.
- Be aware that it is more difficult to judge speed and distance at night.
- Increase following distance to increase crash avoidance space.
- Keep your eyes moving and watch for flashes of light – at the top of hills, at road bends and intersections – that may indicate the headlights of other approaching cars.
- To prevent fatigue from increased and prolonged concentration stop the vehicle to take frequent breaks and to give your eyes a chance to recover fully..
- Do not drive too fast for the distance the headlights allow you to see the road ahead. You should be able to stop inside the illuminated area that you can clearly see. This distance becomes less in bad weather and when the vehicle is loaded (passengers or goods).
- Your headlights should illuminate the road ahead of you for approximately 4 seconds of headway. If you have poor headlights or you aren’t getting at least a 4 second headway, it’s best to slow down.
- Remain cautious and aware of the possibility of animals on the road – you may see the eyes of the animal reflect in the headlights long before you see the animal.
- Swerving is no guarantee that you’ll miss the animal, and creates a much more dangerous situation for everyone. Hold your lane, keep the wheel straight, and apply the brakes as firmly as possible while still maintaining control.
- Be extra cautious at all intersections when driving at night – both for those skipping the red light and criminals seeking to pounce on vehicles that are stationary.
- Approach slowly, look both ways and proceed with caution – do not assume safety!
- Drive close to the side of the road on multi-lane roadways to avoid drunk drivers – but this will require alertness to pedestrian activity as well!
- Do not blind drunk drivers with your headlights on main beam -they have a tendency to drive towards bright lights while driving at night.
- Do not use cruise control when driving at night – keep both hands on the steering wheel and all your focus on steering the vehicle safely!
It is advised that employers establish a safe driving policy taking cognisance of routes, work and driving hours to reduce required travel at night.
Readiness for Breakdown Emergencies
One of the reasons why it is best to avoid driving at night is the risks of vehicle failure and other emergencies that could leave you stranded in dangerous areas. There is less traffic, more criminal activity and fewer opportunities for assistance from the right responders!
- If you have car trouble, pull off the road as far as possible. Warn approaching traffic at once by setting up reflecting triangles near your vehicle and 45 to100m behind it.
- Turn on flashers and the interior dome light.
- Stay off the roadway and get passengers away from the area – if possible, remain in the near vicinity of your vehicle.
- Pre-trip planning is important to give you the best chance at safety and survival.
- A GPS device providing location information and a fully- charged cellular phone is needed to request swift emergency response!
It is important to recognize the increased risks when driving at night. If we cannot avoid driving at this time we need to be well prepared and to adjust our driving to be more defensive!