Growing up in a rural town, there was very little to do at night or on the weekends. Like in all small towns, the sidewalks rolled up at 8 p.m. We did a lot of driving—not just to get to activities in other parts of the county (for a long time, the nearest movie theater was a forty-five minute drive away)—but also as an activity itself. Sometimes we’d stop at the gas station, get a couple sodas and a bag of chips, and just drive around the countryside looking for the shine of a coyote’s eyes in the headlights.
Driving at night is vastly different from driving during the day—anyone who has been behind the wheel in the dark knows this. It’s the most dangerous time of day to drive, especially if you are new to driving. Here are some tips to make driving at night safer and easier:
1. Buy a car with LED headlights. You can easily tell the difference between LED headlights and standard headlights. Most standard headlights have a yellowish cast, while LEDs usually have a bluish cast. They are brighter, making it easier to see the road, the shoulders, and anything in the road, farther off. The further you can see in the dark, the safer you will be. Luckily, most new cars today are equipped with LED headlights. They are less likely to burn out, cheaper, and make driving at night much safer.
2. Learn not to overdrive your lights. What does it mean to overdrive your headlights? It means that you are driving faster than your brain can process what is actually being illuminated by the lights. Speed limits are selected for daytime driving conditions, when the world is lit by the sun, and you can see for miles down a flat road, giving you minutes (or at the very least, seconds) to react to something you see in the road. Overdriving your lights means you’ll only have a split second to react to a hazard, which is usually not enough time to make the right decision to keep yourself and your passengers safe. Slow down so that you have at least four seconds between the edge of your lights and when the car gets to that location.
3. Use your high beams. Yes, it’s annoying when someone comes around their corner in the opposing lane with their high beams on—that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use them. High beams can greatly extend the distance you can see, especially during clear conditions. They might not be as effective during rain, snow, or fog. If there is moisture on the road, high beams will sometimes bounce away from the car, instead of reflecting back in to give you more visibility. Use your best judgement—if you can see better with them on, put them on. If visibility is worse, turn them off. And try to remember that they are on. You don’t want to be the one driving around, blinding everyone else.
4. Avoid staring into an oncoming car’s headlights. As humans, we are naturally inclined to look towards the light. This, however, can be very bad for nighttime drivers. While headlights probably won’t blind you, they can ruin any night vision you may be developing. Once the car is passed, your eyes will have to adjust to the darkness again. You can avoid this problem by looking at the shoulder as a car passes you.
5. Pay special attention to animals. Animals are more likely to approach the road and attempt to cross during the night than they are during the day. Because they are harder to see at night, humans are more likely to hit them. A phenomena called change blindness is often the culprit. On the road, you are looking for car-sized objects in your way, not animal-sized objects (this is also sometimes the reason motorcyclists are hit with a vehicle). You’re prepared for a vehicle, but not for a deer. Keeping a special eye out for smaller hazards at nighttime can keep you safe.
6. Pay attention to the behavior of other drivers. You are more likely to encounter a drunk driver at night than you are during the day. It’s not always easy to spot a drunk driver. They may be driving along perfectly fine, but when a car appears in the opposing lane, they suddenly swerve towards them (they are drawn toward the light). They are not always swerving all over the road, though they may run stop signs and stop lights. Simply be more aware of what other drivers are doing and drive defensively to protect yourself and your passengers.
7. Take a nap if you are tired. Drowsy driving can be just as dangerous as drunk driving, and drowsiness can sneak up on you. It’s more common at night, when the body has environmental triggers (like darkness) telling it that it is time to sleep. Pay attention to your body. Have you been sitting too long? Are your eyes starting to feel heavy? Pulling over, getting out, and jogging around your car may help a little, but if you are really tired, pulling over and taking a nap is the best solution. This is true, of course, only if the area is safe enough to do so. Calling someone and talking to them while you drive, or talking to your passengers is also a good way to stay awake if you feel yourself start to get drowsy while driving and are not in a safe place to stop.