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How to drive safely after dark

Driving at night is usually unavoidable, and because it’s more hazardous than driving in daylight, you should know the reasons why. As the light fades, our visibility is gradually reduced. It’s a big design flaw in humans and we’ve tried to get around it with reflective road markings, cats eyes and LED headlights. However, even modern car headlights can only light up around 120 metres ahead of you, so if your headlights shine on a sharp bend when you’re travelling at 50mph, you’ll have just four seconds to react. For this reason, you must be able to stop in the distance your lights reach, so never speed up at night. In the dark, you’re also more at risk of being distracted by drowsiness. You could find yourself ‘micro-sleeping’ at the wheel and accidentally taking tiny naps of anything from a fraction of a second to 30 seconds. At 70mph, you would travel more than 150 metres in the five seconds you nodded off. It’s also tempting to take risks on an open road when there are fewer people about. It calls to everyone, and may seem harmless to accelerate a little, but if you’re not expecting hazards, you’re not prepared to react. At higher speeds, that lack of expectation and awareness is dangerous, and couple that with the possibility of passing a driver who could be tired, drunk or high. If anything, you should be driving more carefully at night, not less.

Dip not dazzle

Your first rule when driving at night is make sure you can stop well within the distance your headlights show to be clear. Bear in mind that a standard set of headlights will provide about 30 metres of visibility when dipped and 100 metres when on full beam. Remember, you should always keep your lights dipped in lit or urban areas. You can use full beam if you’re on a straight unlit road, but when you see another vehicle approaching be considerate and turn your headlights to dip a second after they are able to see you. This shows them that you have gone on to dip, and may remind them to do the same. You should then slow down, as the distance you can see to be clear will be reduced. If no other traffic is approaching, return to full beam once the vehicle has passed you. When driving around corners and over brows, dip early before you encounter and dazzle an on-coming driver.

Focus after dark

When travelling at night, new drivers in particular should keep an eye on their speed. As visibility deteriorates, you’ll need to reduce your speed to give yourself extra time to respond. As a learner, you’ll probably tend to stare at oncoming headlights and feel dazzled. With practice, you will learn to turn your gaze away from oncoming high beams and instead look to the left-hand side of the road and follow the white line marking the edge (if there is one) to keep track of your position. If the glare is so bad that you can’t see anything, slow down but don’t stop completely as this could cause a car travelling behind to run into the back of you.

Driving in the dark

The drop in visibility at night can lead to things just appearing in view. It’s also harder to judge speed and objects can be closer than they first appear. As a responsible driver, you should be prepared for the unexpected and drive at a speed that allows you to spot such hazards and react accordingly, by being able to brake or manoeuvre without endangering those around you. Not only is the distance you can see at night shortened, it also takes time for your eyes to adjust to the darkness after being in a lit building or driving on a well-lit road. Our eyes become less able to react quickly to changes in light as we get older, creating difficulty with colours and contrasts in poor lighting. Between the ages of 15 and 65, the time it takes to recover from glare increases from one to nine seconds, hence the reason some people find driving at night more demanding. To reduce the effects of eye fatigue at night, keep your eyes moving, scanning all around your field of vision instead of focusing on one area.

Clearer night vision

Driving at night can be a challenge due to the reduction in visibility of other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians and headlight glare. A few simple maintenance tricks can make night-time driving safer and easier. Many drivers neglect cleaning their car windows and although this basic maintenance sounds obvious, it’s not necessarily about the dirt you can see on the windows.

The front windscreen in particular gets dirty on the outside, but can also acquire a thin hazy film on the inside. This can be due to smoking and car heaters, but also something called ‘outgassing’ caused by plastic vinyls releasing plasticisers into your car’s interior.

Plasticisers provide interior vinyl plastics with flexibility and durability but are released into the air, particularly on warmer days and can cover the inside windscreen (and other windows) in a waxy thin covering. This waxy film is hardly noticeable during daylight, but reduces visibility when driving at night as it becomes noticeable in the increased glare from other vehicles’ headlights. Fortunately, this film can be easily removed by a water and vinegar solution.