The Story of DRLs

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The Case Against DRLs


In some countries, DRLs have been mandatory or in use since the 1970s, and some have noticed a decrease in only one or maybe two types of motor vehicle crashes. However, under reanalysis, the benefits of DRLs in these countries has been called into serious question. The countries that currently use and have used DRLs for many years are very different from the United States in culture, in government, and, most importantly, in latitude and climate.

Scandinavian countries were the first to impose DRL regulations on manufacturers and on consumers. But Scandinavia, which is located in the far northern latitudes (i.e. North Pole,) has much less ambient lighting than the United States, especially in the winter. Naturally, then, DRLs would have a different impact on motorists and on highway safety. Yet it is to 20 year old studies from these countries that our government and our automobile manufacturers point to in support of DRL regulations.

Sweden enacted mandatory DRL laws in 1977. Norway followed in 1986, Iceland in 1988, Denmark in 1990. Canada has required DRLs on new cars since 1989. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of geography, however, will see the plain and apparent differences between these nations and our own - their distance from the equator!

Initially, NHSTA said safety experiences in northern countries had no direct application to the United States. But, in a strange reversal of tradition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began embracing DRL regulatory proposals at the request of petitions from General Motors. One need only follow the money trail to see why this has happened. The automobile industry has seen the massive economic potential of marketing their products to your fears, and has convinced the federal government to throw reliable data -- and common sense -- out the window.

Because there is no conclusive evidence that DRLs present any real safety advantages, and because the United States does have more ambient lighting than countries where DRLs have been embraced, DRLs are NOT currently required in America. But if some people -- including the amazing special interest of the automobile industry -- have their way, we'll all soon be paying for their unique but unfounded marketing concept.

Strangely, the road toward DRL acceptance by government regulators has been a twisted one. In 1987, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety proposed that NHTSA permit DRLs. NHTSA rejected the idea, but the Insurance Institute proposed the concept again a year later. Still, it was rejected, and NHTSA said that DRLs do not improve highway safety and may, in fact, INCREASE HIGHWAY HAZARDS. Quite simply, if most vehicles have DRLs, it's harder to spot those who do not. NHTSA also said glare from the DRLs of oncoming vehicles could bother some drivers.

But in 1990, General Motors pushed NHTSA again, asking for a national standard permitting an optional DRL system. NHTSA complied two years later, and therein lies the problem. NHTSA regulations take precedence over any and all state laws, so now DRLs are legal in all states, when two-thirds of the states had previously banned DRLs altogether. Even worse, NHTSA permitted DRLs to be implemented on high beam headlamps at up to 7000 candela. This is well above the threshold for discomfort glare. Why? So that GM could make DRLs on the cheap.

GM began installing DRLs immediately on some models in 1993. By 1997, all GM vehicles had installed. GM has kindly offered to SELL you a kit to convert your current vehicle to DRLs. How thoughtful -- and how very profitable.

Finally, in 1998, after receiving several hundred complaints about the excessive glare and the overall effectiveness of DRLs, NHTSA proposed reductions in DRL intensities. The proposed reductions were overly generous to the auto manufacturers by permitting high beam DRLs to be used for another three years. In the end, after 4 years low beam DRLs would be allowed if they were no stronger than 1500cd above the horizontal. Due to vehicles operating at a higher voltage in the real world than in the lab, this figure would approach 2000cd when the car hit the road. In addition, there was no limit placed on the intensity below the horizontal. With such extreme vehicle height differences that we have today, from the Corvette to the 3500 Silverado, glare would continue to be a problem. Why the lax rule? Because NHTSA doesn't want to upset GM and its bottom line.

Unfortunately, NHTSA failed to meet several self imposed deadlines for releasing a final rule. Part of the reason may be that members of LightsOut.ORG wanted proof that DRLs were effective in the US. In 2000, NHTSA released a preliminary assessment, claiming a 5% reduction in some non-fatal collisions and a 28% reduction in pedestrian fatalities. NHTSA's study was, as expected, full of holes. Read about the details on our Studies page. As of December, 2001, we're still waiting for NHTSA's final rule. In the meantime, GM and others are free to inflict high beam DRLs on the motoring public.

On December 20, 2001, GM petitioned NHTSA to mandate DRLs for all new vehicles in the US. We can only guess what GM's motivation is. Perhaps, seeing their marketshare erode, they felt they could level the playing field with other manufacturers. If their competitors were forced to sell vehicles with DRLs, then those of us who refuse to purchase a car with DRLs would have no choice, and their competitors would have to include the cost of the mandatory DRLs in the vehicle's price. Another possibility is that GM has seen a preview of NHTSA's final rule and doesn't like it. By agreeing to respond to GM's petition within 120 days, NHTSA may have to yet again delay implementation of the rule for several more months. We can only hope that NHTSA will do The Right Thing and straighten out the mess that they created. Unless you want your next new car, truck, or SUV to have DRLs by federal mandate, act now and join our organization!

The Case Against DRLs

Unlike our opponents, we have clear reasons for our position, some of which you've already read:

1. The original concept for DRLs was to compensate for a lighting deficiency. We don't have such a deficiency in the United States!

2. Since we have greater natural light, the auto manufacturers have increased the intensity of their DRLs. Just what we need: Bright lights hitting your eyes while you're trying to drive a car on a busy highway!

3. Safety features need not create hazards and, more to the point, should not be so very, very annoying to so many people. Humans, by our very nature, tend to avoid disturbing stimuli, thus taking our eyes off the road! Some people respond to DRLs by avoiding looking directly at other cars on the road. Some avoid using their rear- or side-view mirrors. Some are even using devices which are already on the market to reduce the glare from oncoming DRLs. These actions by people will result in them being less observant, therefore, worse drivers and more accident prone.

4. Current data on the safety benefits of DRLs has been misinterpreted by proponents of DRLs. They have absolutely no positive effect on bright sunny days. The data should be interpreted thusly: People are not turning on their lights in conditions requiring illumination -- e.g. rain, snow, fog, dusk, dawn, etc. -- and therefore the problem is driver error. The solution, logically, should be driver improvement.

5. Of all the myriad categories of motor vehicle crashes, DRL use is arguably associated with improving one, maybe two types. The better solution to highway safety is driver improvement; this would substantially and dramatically decrease accidents of all types.

6. People will literally die because of DRL use. By failing to institute the correct solution to problems illustrated by DRL data -- driver error -- people will continue to die and be injured who might otherwise have been spared from such incidents. Furthermore, we believe the annoyance and distraction caused by DRL-equipped vehicles will be significant, but we also believe this will never be admitted or assigned to DRL use by their proponents.

7. DRLs are an inefficient use of resources. Lights will have to be replaced more frequently, and it will have to be done by auto service personnel. Fuel consumption will increase and, although it's not much per car, it is an astronomical dollar figure when multiplied by the millions of vehicles in this country. Conservative estimates place the figure at 604 million gallons of fuel per year, resulting in 8 billion pounds of CO2 being exhausted into the atmosphere. What's even worse, in testing vehicles for fuel efficiency, GM has requested -- and received -- permission from the federal government to disconnect DRLs so as not to be penalized for poorer fuel efficiency. So consumers are not able to know how DRLs will affect their fuel efficiency when buying a car. See NHTSA's correspondence with the EPA regarding DRLs' CAFE exemption.

8. DRLs represent stone-age technology in the 21st century. Since cars do not need illumination at all hours, why not install sensors to activate headlights when ambient light is insufficient? The technology exists, and is already in use on several vehicle models.

9. DRLs are insulting to our intelligence. DRL proponents assume that drivers are not intelligent enough to know when to turn on their lights. By implication, then, DRL proponents are saying, in effect, that the states are licensing unqualified drivers! Driving is a skill. Observation is a skill. With proper experience and training, these skills are integrated in the person of a safe driver. Both of these skills can be nurtured or improved in every driver. But, neither skill will be enhanced in today's environment if it believes safety lies in the gadgets and misinterpreted data. Safety, in reality, is nothing more than the collective responsibility of each individual to be the best driver -- the most observant, the most cautious, the most defensive, the most skilled -- that he or she can be.

10. What is the industry's motivation? Safety? We think not. Again, follow the money trail.

Even some level heads within the automotive industry have been reluctant to embrace DRLs. "It's not that we are against them, but we haven't seen any real evidence of the safety benefits," said Chrysler spokesman Jason Vines. (Automotive News, 1995.) "We are not convinced yet that they're going to be beneficial," said Ford's manager of advance safety, Sherman Henson. And even GM's executives have their doubts: "The research on whether or not daytime running lights are effective is mixed," said the company's director of legal and safety issues.

Many more U.S. industry and safety officials say the theory behind DRLs needs further testing. And some suggest that GM's motivation is sales, not safety. It makes sense, in a time when airbags, anti-lock brakes and built-in child-safety seats are all the rage in new-car advertising.

There are millions of individuals who feel as we do about DRLs, but so far we exist without an organization to represent our views and channel our thoughts, our votes and our purchasing power where it needs to go. We urge every individual who shares our concern about DRLs to join our organization. If we act in concert, they will feel our might. Without us, so called "safety people" will engage in further feel-good policymaking that will only justify their jobs.


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