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Others seeing your classic in a different light

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Tony Batchelor

The quite serious question you should be asking yourself when driving around during the wet and gloomy Winter days is "can I be seen by other drivers". You might however give that question some thought in certain light conditions when driving through woodland in and out of the shadows on lovely sunny days. Hopefully we will experience that very soon.

In fact this is such a serious question that the answer might mean the difference between, best case avoiding an accident and worse case, well you can guess what that is - Image Sports Classics London.

I find the older I get the more grumpy I am becoming and consequently I moan a great deal more. But sometimes the actions of other drivers just simply defies belief. Thinking I am getting like Victor Meldrew here where “I cannot belieeeeeve it”, and this is particularly so when driving about.

Today's pet subject is switching on vehicle lights, and in the case of some drivers who play brinkmanship with the light switch, they must have much better eyesight that me. At my age that is quite possible, but that however means they might be able to see me but I might not see them as they have no lights lights on their vehicle. This is particularly important when the vast majority of sensible motorists are driving cars which are illuminated, and therefore more visible to others.

I find it interesting how many more cars are now travelling around with Daytime Running Lights (DRL’s), plus other vehicles without DRL’s but with the headlights switched on. There is a legal requirement since 2011 for new cars and small vans to be fitted with DRL’s, but there there is no legal requirement to physically switch lights on during the day. Clearly then there are many drivers who are are thinking about what they are actually doing behind the wheel and make some attempt to reduce the likelihood of an accident. Self preservation possibly.

I thought I would check what the Highway Code says about lighting up time, as left to drivers we all seem to have a different interpretation of when to light up or continue to play brinkmanship for a few more minutes.

The Highway Code clause 113 states “you MUST ensure all sidelights and rear registration plate lights are lit between sunset and sunrise” and “use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced (see Rule 226)”. Rule 226 of the Highway Code states:You MUST use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced, generally when you cannot see for more than 100 metres (328 feet)"

I find it reasuring that after almost 50 years since this country supposedly went Metric our Government issued documentation still refers to an imperial measurement, just in case we are still confused after all these years.

The Highway Code also states “Night, or the hours of darkness, is defined as the period between half an hour after sunset and half an hour before sunrise”. Now I have searched quite a bit for the reference to “night” in the Code but I can only find “sunset and sunrise”, so why they refer to “night” I have not got a clue.

If you are interested in what the Gov.UK website has to say on this subject, in case you do not know already, see:

To be quite honest the Highway Code does not answer the question as to when you should be displaying lights, to a great extent it is open to driver interpretation. I guess that is why it is a Code, a guide if you like which leaves it to the driver to make the call, but it seems you can be penalised by Law for not complying. If you want to read the relevant paragraphs in the Highway Code for yourself see

Drivers of vehicles not fitted with DRL’s can, I would suggest, clearly see the benefit of taking the trouble and suffer the inconvenience to simply turn the switch at the end of their fingertips to make their vehicle more visible to other drivers. A simple and painless action which might possibly save their lives and maybe the lives of others.

Approaching dusk and I can count 54 vehicles in this image with their lights on and 1 without lights, I guess the distance is around 150 to 200metres, but can you spot the one playing brinkmanship? - Image The Times

Getting dark and a wonderful sunset, time for the majority to “light up”. I lost count of the number of illuminated vehicles in this image having reached 60. However, 3 have no lights whilst driving along this semi-dark and wet motorway, which you would be less likely to see in your door or rear view mirror. Can you spot those also? - Image hiyacar

Driving around in the daytime in 2020 is a complete contrast to what happened some 50 years ago. SAAB was the first motor manufacturer to fit DRL’s to their SAAB 99 model in 1968, Volvo followed suit in 1974. The difference between the two systems was the SAAB DRL’s gave the driver the option to switch them off, whereas the Volvo system there was no such option, they were on as long as the engine was running.

Forerunner of the DRL’s, albeit switchable, the SAAB 99 - image Goodwood 2202

Volvo 200 series estate with permanent DRL’s - image Wiki

I recall back in 1974 occasionally encountering a Volvo during the day and flashing the driver with my headlights because they appeared to have their sidelights on. This was quite common practice which must have annoyed Volvo drivers considerably. I only stopped doing it because I asked someone in the office why that might be and he advised it was a safety feature on the car. Good old Swedes, always keen on safety features.

But why did we do that, flash other drivers because they had their sidelights on. Possibly thinking it might extend the lifespan of the bulbs, to avoid a drain on the battery, or maybe to save fuel. Well whatever the reason it was unheard of to drive during the day with clear visibility with your lights on.

It was not until 2011 that a European Union Directive 2008/89/EC required all passenger cars and small delivery vans first type approved on or after 7 February 2011 in the EU, to come equipped with daytime running lights.

So here we are 9 years later in 2020 where a significant percentage of cars have DRL’s and an ever decreasing percentage which do not. Now say what you like about the merits or otherwise of the EU, this is one piece of bureaucracy I believe they got right.

However, with so many vehicles on the road travelling with DRL’s or headlights on, drivers who might not necessarily be concentrating on what they are doing might come to expect the instant visibility that the illumination provides. So when a car comes out of the gloom with no lights on a driver can be less reactive as the unilluminated car blends into the background.

Similarly if you are travelling along a motorway and glance in your mirror to pull out, or even pull in, you might have more chance of noticing an illuminated car as opposed the odd one without any lights.

on this gloomy image which is the first car you can see when you glance in the door mirror. Is it "Graham" in his grey car on a grey day? - image pixabay

I have studied this visibility aspect quite a bit when driving around, and often I have found myself flashing other vehicles because they were not visible and they were putting others and themselves in danger. So 50 years ago I was flashing drivers to turn their lights off, now it is to turn them on. Quite often though drivers need to be flashed, sheer stupidity driving around with no lights in certain conditions, complete idiots.

From my experimentation I have reached the conclusion that drivers react more quickly if I am driving during the day with headlights on, and I am sure all drivers are the same. Brightly coloured cars are more likely to be seen earlier, but drivers of grey, silver or darker cars should definitely turn lights on, and why not? It is not going to save you much, well apart from the possibly of you being involved in an accident as another driver has not been concentrating properly and simply did not seen you or react quickly enough. Their fault, maybe and maybe not, it depends on specific circumstances, but people could be injured unnecessarily due to their inconsiderate inaction.

And what about sunny days, travelling around the countryside down narrow lanes with the trees overhanging the road and creating shadows. Well as we all know our eyes react to bright and dull lighting conditions at different rates, so our reaction times will differ due to our eyes adjusting to the light. But if you look at oncoming vehicles with DRL’s they are more quickly recognised than some dull vehicle emerging from the gloomy shadows.

Time to play Spot the Difference. Look at the following two images reasonably quickly as thought you were pulling out of a side road. Can you see what I mean about emerging from the shadows

This could be you, driving through the countryside and wooded forests on a lovely sunny day, albeit on the correct side of the road, pretty much invisible to other motorists hacking around in their modern cars fitted with DRL's - images Deposit Photos

But do not take my word for it, when you are driving around make a point of looking at oncoming vehicles and judge for yourself whether vehicles with DRL’s and headlights switched on are indeed more visible. You can then decide if it might be a good idea to switch your headlights on also, and I do not mean just switch on the sidelights which might be best used for parking.

Oh and do not forget, with DRL’s ablazing and the dash instrumentation automatically illuminated in certain light conditions, it might lead you at night to believe you have all of your lights on but that might not be the case. DRL’s do not mean the rear lights are illuminated, so when someone comes up behind you flashing their main beams like a madman, they are not just saying “hello, nice car”, there could be a problem with your vehicle. That problem is possibly the rear lights on your car are not switched on, so you are just driving on the DRL's.

I guess by now you are asking what has all of this got to do with a classic car Blog, it sounds more like a safety lecture. Well obviously our beloved classics are not fitted with DRL’s as standard, and at times you could be the odd one out and appearing to play brinkmanship when all other cars on the road are illuminated. Plus you are more likely to be out and about in sunny conditions, in and out of the shadows as it were.

Our beloved classics are however fitted with headlights, and I tend to drive around with them switched on most of the time. The reason for that is quite a number of drivers do not seem to recognise a bright blue car travelling towards them. If they cannot see a bright blue car it is unlikely they will acknowledge me when I am happliy driving along the road reliving the

nostalgia of the 1960's. If I had a pound for every car which has pulled out in front of me etc, so it is happening already. I do not want to keep worrying about these idiots and hence I have prepared by fitting a servo and driving around sufficiently illuminated.

I am however mulling the idea of fitting a set of LED DRL’s behind the grille which will make my car more visible. It will also prevent me from parking up and leaving the headlights on simply because there was no “dinging” warning noise when I switched off and pulled the key out. Modern cars do have some benefits, like starting when required, do not drip oil, a working heater, two speed intermittent wipers and annoying "dinging" warning noises.

But seriously, have a look at oncoming traffic when you are driving around and decide for yourself if the vehicles fitted with DRL’s or headlights switched on are more visible than the non-illuminated vehicles, and ponder how your vehicle might appear to other drivers. If you agree non-illuminated vehicles blend in on grey days or the shadows, you should switch your headlights on also.

Sidelights are of little benefit as they do not provide sufficient illumination. They are for parking up in the dark as an addition to the small reflectors on the rear of the car. Or of course if you park the car the incorrect way round in a street for which you can be fined, check out the Highway Code.

There is no need to be sparing when turning, or flicking, the switch and being seen, you do not drive that far and so what the bulbs might last less time. However, it may save your beloved and possibly irreplaceable classic car from being trashed by some thoughtless idiot not thinking about driving conditions and assuming everyone can see them, or most importantly them simply not seeing you.

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