BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBMA) — So called 'phantom vehicles' with their headlights and tail lights off appear to be more common these days. The drivers don't seem to realize they are driving in the dark.
It's a major safety hazard especially on high speed interstates. "Headlights are one of most critical safety components on a vehicle," remarked Michael Brooks, Executive Director Center for Auto Safety.
We drove through downtown this past weekend and quickly spotted vehicles with their headlights off. Up on the busy interstates, we saw the same thing.
Brooks explains there are no hard numbers for those driving with their lights off causing crashes, but it is a definite concern.
National statistics show people are three times more likely to be involved in a severe car crash from dusk to dawn. Half of all fatal accidents occur at night.
"I've seen a lot of cars I stopped that do not have lights on. You could run up on one of these cars and not know it," warned State Trooper Justin O'Neal. He says the mistake doesn't usually result in a ticket, but he advises drivers do a safety check.
"Do a quick pre-trip inspection and walk around your vehicle," said Trooper O'Neal. He explained it can also be an issue with rental vehicles which drivers aren't familiar with.
Drivers tell us its an easy mistake to make. "I did it one night myself," explained Ellen Rogers.
Rogers says she's even tried to alert other drivers by flashing her headlights. However that's not always met with gratitude.
"I kind of flicked mine at him and he did something not nice and kept driving," recalled Rogers.
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So why does this seem to be happening more often? Experts say vehicle dashboard lights which are on both day and night in newer model cars may be partially to blame.
"It gives you the perception your headlights are on with some luminescence," explained Brooks.
Also your daytime running lamps could be on giving you some light and the impression your headlights are on while your tail lights are off.
Experts advise make sure the lights are in the "auto" position. "Sometimes kids get in the car or another driver and they may turn the lights off so they no longer automatically turn on at night," remarked Brooks.
Remember if someone is flashing or honking at you on the road, they may simply be offering you a reminder to hit the lights!
Under Alabama law headlights must be on thirty minutes after sunset until 30 minutes before sunrise and when your windshield wipers are activated.
You could be pulled over and potentially fined for not having your lights on.
INFORMATION FROM RESEARCHERS WITH THE ALABAMA TRANSPORTATION INSTITUTE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA:
Historically, headlight controls (including activation of brighter headlights) have been manually activated by the driver. Daytime running lights (or DRL’s) became available in the 1990’s and have been evaluated by NHTSA in the past. Many vehicles do come equipped with some form of automatic light control that is activated by one or more sensors in the vehicle (e.g., ambient light sensors that detect low light situations), but the specific functionality and their availability varies by manufacturer. Recently (February 2022), rules allowing adaptive driving beam headlights to be installed in vehicles was finalized.
“Adaptive driving beam headlight systems, or ADB, use automatic headlight beam switching technology to shine less light on occupied areas of the road and more light on unoccupied areas. The adaptive beam is particularly useful for distance illumination of pedestrians, animals, and objects without reducing the visibility of drivers in other vehicles.”
Analysts looked at crash data to see if "driving without headlights” was one of the primary contributing circumstances (PCC) on the crash report and it is not. There is a category for vehicle defects that references headlights but that is a different issue. The definition – “Pre-existing motor vehicle defects or maintenance conditions that may have contributed to the crash.” But a defect is different than lights not being turned on.