Driving during daylight hours can be stressful enough, but as darkness falls vision is reduced and it's more difficult to spot other road users such as cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists.
A survey of more than 5,000 motorists across Europe, commissioned by Ford in 2017, found that 81% admit to being scared on the roads at night, rising to 87% for women.
More than half of the participants highlighted poor night vision as a source of stress, while as many as one in three worry they will be involved in an accident. At least 20% said they feared hitting a pedestrian they could not see.
According to RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents), road casualty statistics show 40% of collisions occur in the hours of darkness.
The danger of falling asleep at the wheel is a significant factor at night and accounts for 20% of serious accidents on motorways and roads in Britain.
Dazzled by headlights at night
Additionally, the headlights of some newer cars are so bright they are causing a road safety hazard for drivers with as many as two-thirds (65%) of motorists saying they regularly get dazzled by oncoming headlights even though they’re dipped.
In a 2018 survey for the RAC, 15% of drivers claimed they’d suffered a near-miss as a result of being dazzled by modern headlights that they believe are too bright.
A range of different types of headlights are fitted to vehicles these days, from the traditional halogen headlamps to the brighter, newer xenon (or high intensity discharge), lights which are longer-lasting due to not having a filament. LED headlamps are another option, which are said to produce a light more similar to daylight that isn’t as dazzling to drivers in oncoming traffic due to less glare.
There’s an ongoing debate over the best headlights for night driving. While the new headlight designs are brighter, making it easier for drivers to see and therefore potentially safer for them, the RAC says this may be at the expense of the safety of other road users.
Safety tips for driving at night
1. Check your lights
Check your vehicle’s lights regularly, for your safety and those around you. If you can't test them all yourself, ask someone to do a visual check for you. Legally, all your car's exterior lights must be operational – that's everything from the headlights to indicators, and even the number plate bulb.
2. Check your vision
Driving in the middle of the night is more challenging as we age because our eyes become less sensitive to light. If you struggle to see clearly after dusk, it may be best to avoid night time driving completely.
3. Use dipped headlights
Turn on your dipped headlights at dusk for better visibility and to be seen. Your main beam should be used whenever possible, but switch back to dipped headlights when you can see oncoming traffic in order avoid dazzling them. Some vehicles are equipped with an automatic dipped beam system that turns the lights on and off depending on exterior light conditions.
4. Watch out for motorcyclists, pedestrians and cyclists
Familiar routes can pose totally different challenges in the dark so keep extra alert and looking out for motorcyclists, pedestrians and cyclists in the gloom. Also watch out for mobile phone ‘zombies’ – pedestrians who are concentrating on their phone and not the traffic, and may just step out into the road.
Take particular care when driving near schools in the late afternoon during mid-winter when it's dark early and children could be walking home.
5. Check your speed and stopping distance
It’s a good idea to drive more slowly than you normally would during the day. Also, adapt your speed to be able to brake within the headlamp range.
Judging the speed of vehicles is difficult in the dark, so increase the distance between you and the car in front of you.
6. Recognise the signs of tiredness
Recognise early signs of fatigue such as your eyelids getting heavy, having trouble staying in your lane or struggling to remember where you’ve driven in the last mile.
Drowsiness affects your reflexes and the effect is said to be like driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.5 grams per litre. At the first sign of tiredness, stop in a safe place (not a motorway hard shoulder) and take a break. Drinking coffee or an equivalent caffeinated drink will help, as will a short nap of around 15-20 minutes.
7. Avoid distractions
Keep distractions to a minimum when driving at night. While distractions should be prevented at any time of the day, night driving requires extra focus. Practical things you can do include:
- Keeping your mobile phone screen out of sight
- Dimming dashboard lights
- Turning off all interior lights to reduce internal reflections and glare
8. Take regular breaks
If you’re travelling a long distance, take a break every two hours. Stop to have a drink, eat something and rest for a short while before continuing your journey.
Regular eye tests
Eyesight can deteriorate over time without you noticing. If you are having to move closer to the television to read the titles clearly or have noticed even a slight deterioration with your eyes, road safety charity IAM RoadSmart recommends booking regular check-ups. This should be done on a regular basis (every two years) and it’s free for the over 60s.
By law, you must be able to read (with glasses or contact lenses, if necessary) a car number plate made after September 1, 2001, from 20 metres. Try the test yourself, and if you struggle to read it, get checked out straight away.
In November 2018, the Association of Optometrists (AOP) reported that almost half (44%) of optometrists in the UK had seen a patient within the previous month who’d continued to drive despite being told their vision was below the legal standard.
Technology to the rescue
Car manufacturers are constantly developing new systems to make cars, and other road users, safer. Headlights are more efficient than ever, while there are lane departure and blind spot alerts, plus other semi-autonomous driving aids.
Some cars with digital dashboards even offer night vision. For instance, an infra-red camera at the front of the new Peugeot 508 makes it easier to spot pedestrians or animals in the road at night within a 200-250 metre range, which is "beyond the headlights’ scope".