Driving in the dark is a pet hate for many UK motorists but few may realise how dangerous it can actually be. Road casualty statistics show that 40% of collisions occur in the hours of darkness, typically between 7pm and 6am. Driving conditions are remarkably different in the night time because your vision is reduced. Your depth perception, ability to distinguish color and peripheral vision are all worse in low-light conditions so it’s harder to judge speed and distance because objects can appear closer than they actually are.
The danger of falling asleep at the wheel is also a significant factor at night, accounting for 20% of serious accidents on motorways and monotonous roads in Great Britain. You tend to be more tired at night, particularly when driving at times when you would usually be asleep, so the risk of falling asleep behind the wheel is increased.
The most obvious way to avoid the dangers inherent to night driving is to simply not drive at night. Where possible, take other forms of transport such as rail, air, bus or coach to get to your destination. But if this is not possible, Nationwide Vehicle Contracts has put together a list of 10 top tips to help keep you safe on the road when driving in the dark.
The most obvious danger of night driving is decreased visibility. The distance a driver can see is shortened and hazards can often seem to appear out of nowhere. Making sure your headlights are aligned correctly before you start your trip is essential to staying safe on the road.
Your headlights should be aligned for optimum night-time visibility and checked for proper alignment every 3,000 miles or so, typically when you change your oil. If you plan to align the headlamps yourself, make sure you follow the instructions in your owner's manual as every vehicle is different. You should also check that all lights on the car are in full working order and kept clean before you start a journey.
Be sure to clean the road grime from your headlights covers often to ensure your lights work properly. Polycarbonate headlight lenses (those with plastic covers) often tend to look yellowed, faded or hazy after a few years due to exposure to sunlight and atmospheric chemicals.
Start by washing your car to remove any surface dirt. You may also want to mask the area around the headlamp to ensure you don’t damage the paintwork or chrome trim. Use a headlight polish kit to remove the haze with a flannel or microfiber cloth, using a circular motion until the polish dries out, lifting the haziness off the lens. Finally, polish the lens surface to remove any last bits of haze and check your lights to ensure they shine through brightly.
Many drivers only change their headlights when a bulb has blown but changing and upgrading headlights before they burn out can help to increase visibility and ensure optimum performance. Standard halogen headlights naturally dim over time and make less light than new ones. Ideally, headlights should be checked periodically and replaced in pairs, much like wiper blades on a vehicle.
When replacing a headlight bulb, always check your owner's manual to ensure you purchase the correct bulb for your vehicle. Consider replacing standard halogen headlights with high performance headlights that produce a light closer in colour to natural daylight. These whiter, brighter bulbs help improve your visibility at night. Always replace your headlights in pairs to avoid uneven illumination, which can diminish driving visibility.
Windscreens that appear clean during the day may reveal streaks that can cause glare at night so make sure you stay safe on the road by cleaning your windscreen thoroughly. There are plenty of cleaning products on the market that will do the job and polish can be used to help remove fine scratches. Try not to touch the inside surfaces of your windscreen, side windows or interior mirrors with your hands as the oil from your skin will smear on the glass. Instead, keep a cotton or microfiber cloth in your door pocket.
Top tip: If you're out on the road and have nothing else to hand, a screwed up newspaper is an effective way to get rid of the worst of the grime.
Dirty side mirrors reflect the lights from cars behind in a wider, diffused shape that can produce glare in your eyes. Clean off stubborn water spots and residue with same products you use to clean glass in your home. Many of these products simply spray on and wipe off without rinsing. You can also use a lint-free soft rag or sturdy paper towels to avoid scratching the glass.
If you are often blinded by headlights in your side mirrors, aim them slightly downward so that you can move your head out of the path of lights reflected in them. This way, you can still see cars behind you but you will not be blinded with the high beams.
Most modern cars now come with a night setting on your dashboard to dim the interior lights during darker hours. Adjusting the brightness of your dash helps you preserve your night vision and drive more comfortably.
To change the brightness of your instrument panel, locate the brightness control button on the dash of your car and turn it to the left to dim the lights. You may also see a brightness gauge on the information centre if your car is equipped with a multi-information display system.
Fog lights help the driver to see the road ahead by lighting up the fog in front of the car. They are usually mounted lower down on the front of a car because fog itself often hangs no lower than a couple of feet above the road. They typically cast a wider but shorter beam to help you see beyond the road's shoulder.
In poor light conditions, such as fog, sleet or heavy snow, fog lights can help with visibility. Rear fog lights are particularly helpful as they make you more visible to the cars behind. If you do put on your fog lights however, please make sure you turn them off again when the poor weather conditions clear up otherwise they can be dazzling to other drivers.
Having good eyesight is a basic requirement of safe driving. Road crashes caused by poor driver vision are estimated to cause 2,900 casualties in the UK per year so it is important to have regular eye checks to ensure you stay safe on the road.
Most people find that their vision is worse at night as it takes time for the eyes to adjust to the darkness after being in a lit building or after driving on a well-lit road. Poor vision increases your risk of crashing so experts advise you have your eyes tested every two years even if you don’t wear glasses, just to ensure that your eye health is at its optimum level.
If you suffer from poor night vision, you may benefit from prescription glasses to help you see better on the road at night. These special glasses have lenses developed with wavefront diagnostic technology to reduce halos, star bursts, glare and other distracting aberrations whilst driving. Anti-glare or antireflection coating also helps to reduce reflections, thereby enhancing contrast and improving vision.
Speak to your optician for further information.
Finally, if you have to drive at night, ensure that you or any other drivers are well rested before the journey and book overnight stops where necessary. Plan the journey in advance and take rest breaks at least every two hours.
The hours of darkness are when your body is preparing to sleep, especially after a hard day at work so tiredness can set in quickly. Feeling tired when you are driving is an early warning sign that you will fall asleep at the wheel so if you feel tired, find somewhere to stop as soon as possible, drink two strong cups of coffee and have a short nap for 15 minutes.
Have any other tips for driving in the dark? Share them with us below to help fellow drivers stay safe on the road. You can also visit our Motoring Guides section for more helpful tips and advice for saying safe and legal.