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Safe Driving at Night

By Katrina Brown Hunt

It’s not just paranoia: Driving at night is actually more dangerous. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, fatal accidents are three times more likely at night compared with the daytime–but here are 12 tips that could help reduce your risk.

The main reason that NHTSA finds driving at night is more dangerous is that we can’t see as well in the dark. Alex Epstein, director of transportation safety at the National Safety Council notes that “You see less of the road ahead and have less room and time to stop.” Ironically, some kinds of light—like the glare from too-bright lights—can compound the problem. And other factors add to the challenge of driving at night.

1. Be extra defensive

Drinking and driving poses a bigger risk after dark, according to NHTSA, which has found that the rate of fatal crashes involving alcohol impairment is almost four times higher at night than during the day. Never get behind the wheel after drinking, no matter what time of day it is (and don’t drive distracted either). At night, put your defensive-driving instincts on high alert.

2. Combat fatigue

Drowsy-driving crashes are most likely to happen between midnight and 6 a.m., says NHTSA when there may be sleepy drivers on the road. Keep yourself alert: have caffeine, pull over in a safe area to get some rest, or stop for the night. Some drivers report other helpful activities: keep the radio on, roll down the windows periodically for fresh air, and talk (or sing) to yourself.

3. Clean up your view

Dirty or damaged windshields can scatter light and potentially increase the effects of glare, according to NHTSA. Dirty or damaged headlights can decrease your visibility and cast glare onto oncoming drivers – so clean headlights and windshields regularly.

4. Avoid two-lane highways

NHTSA says two-lane highways may be a “worst-case scenario” for nighttime glare, due to oncoming cars’ headlights, lower overall light, and the fact that these roads tend to have more sharp curves and hills than a freeway. If you can, take a safer route at night.

5. Slow down

Speeding-related crashes account for 37 percent of nighttime-driving fatalities, says NHTSA—compared with 21 percent during daylight hours—due to lower visibility and shorter reaction times. Your headlight typically shines 160 feet in front of you, but even at 40 mph, you need 190 feet to stop. Adjust your speed to take conditions into account, says Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

6. Angle your headlights correctly

If the beams tilt down too much, you’ll lose some of the illumination you need while driving. But if they tilt too high, they can blind oncoming drivers. Some states’ annual inspection tests the headlight angle—otherwise, take the initiative to make sure yours are pointed correctly. “This isn’t usually a DIY project,” says Rader. “Consumers should go to their car dealer or a repair facility for assistance.”

7. Use high beams when appropriate

High beams are underutilized, says Rader, but can be very helpful in rural areas or on open roads. Remember to dim them when you’re within 500 feet of an oncoming vehicle (so you don’t temporarily blind the other driver) and don’t use them when following another vehicle. Newer cars may have adaptive lighting systems that automatically adjust your beams depending on the presence of other cars.

8. Tweak your inside lighting

Interior dashboard lights that are too bright may be disorienting when glancing from the dashboard to the dark road says the NSC’s Epstein. He advises to dim interior lights at night to keep critical controls visible but not distracting and to use your visors at night to shield you from outdoor street lighting and glare. Many newer cars have mirrors that automatically dim the reflections from bright light.

9. Look in the right direction

While you should always keep your eyes on the road, avoid a fixed gaze and never stare at oncoming headlights, says Epstein. When approaching an oncoming vehicle, shift your eyes down and to the right, using the right edge of the road or lane markings as a guide to stay on track. Lift your gaze back up once you’ve passed the oncoming vehicle.

10. Watch for wildlife

Collisions with deer often happen at dusk or at night and are more common from October to January. Your high beams can help you spot an animal’s glowing eyes. When you see them, the safest way to avoid an accident is by slowing down and stopping—not by swerving. Read safety tips to avoid hitting a deer.

11. Take care of your eyes

Get your vision checked every year, suggests the NSC; glare becomes more problematic for people as they age. You may also need a different eye prescription at night.

12. Test and use your lights

Regularly test all your lights, including low beams, high beams, daytime running lights, turn signals and brake lights. Be sure to use your headlights to stay visible, both when it’s dark and in adverse weather conditions like rain, snow and hail.

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