As we get ready to turn our clocks back an hour on November 4 here in the US, it’s worth remembering that this extra hour of darkness during the busiest times for traffic makes things extremely dangerous for everyone. Vehicle lighting expert Daniel Stern explains why and what all of us road users can do about it.

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Hey kids, what time is it? No, it’s not Howdy Doody Time, it’s time for the annual pedestrian cull when we change the clocks soon. We grumble (especially me), and there are many baseless folk “explanations” for why we do it: farmers/cows, energy savings, protect the children walking to school, etc.

The fact is, if we didn’t drop back an hour each autumn, it would allow the pedestrian herd to grow too large.

No foolin’—there’s a significant spike in pedestrian deaths every autumn directly coinciding with setting the clocks back, and that higher death rate remains until we set them forward in the spring. See here for a very stark and immediately understandable plot of the effect. It’s not a temporary blip and it’s not primarily because people take a while to get used to the change—it’s because during “standard” (winter) time, more pedestrians and more cars are sharing the roads in darkness.

Why? Because more drivers and pedestrians alike are out and about in the afternoon-evening hours than in the morning, no matter what the clocks say. And with a higher percentage of the afternoons and evenings in darkness, more pedestrians are hit (see here, especially Figure 1 and Table 4). One of the researchers discussing the study with me said, “The bottom line should be how early in the day people go about their activities. There is a lot more pedestrian activity in the evening than in the morning, so shifting all activity earlier relative to the sun (as Daylight Saving Time normally does) brings a net benefit.”

Graph of US Pedestrian Fatalities by Season

Credit: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

That suggests keeping DST (“summer” time) year-round would be a good idea, and moving the clocks forward from there in winter, to countervail the earlier nightfall, might be better still. But none of that’s likely to happen any time soon, because…um…because…look, it’s just not. So we have to deal with the reality we’re stuck with: We’re all at much greater risk to be hit while walking and at much greater risk to hit a pedestrian while driving until the clocks change again in the spring.

Most of us aren’t just drivers, we’re also pedestrians. Some of us are bicyclists, too. Some of us are parents. Each of those roles brings opportunities to improve the odds against committing or suffering from traffic violence in the seasonal darkness:

Drivers:

  • See that all your car’s lights are working, correctly aimed or adjusted, and in good condition. Hazed headlamp lenses—even just a little bit—make you vastly more likely to hit and maim or kill a pedestrian.
  • Make sure you’re using nighttime lights after dark; DRLs (daytime running lights) do not substitute for full headlamps with tail and side marker lights. Even if you’re sure you know, make extra-sure; spend 60 seconds refamiliarizing yourself with how your car’s light controls work. You can do it at the same time you check the lights are all working.
  • Use low beams when other cars are in front of you, but switch to high beams every chance you can without dazzling others—most drivers fail to use their high beams enough.
  • Keep your windshield and rear glass good and clean, inside and out; grimy buildup makes it much harder to see properly, as well as making fogginess on the inside of the glass much harder to clear.
  • Keep your dashboard lights turned down to the lowest level that still lets you read important information at a glance. Bright dashboard lighting takes a giant bite out of our ability to see pedestrians, animals, and other dark, unreflectorized things that go bump in the night.
  • Get a fluorescent and reflective safety vest or belt—something like this, this, this, this, this, or this—and stuff it under the seat. Get at least one extra for a passenger, too; they’re cheap and easy to throw on if you have to be outside the car after dark. Then (this is the tricky bit) use it even if you’re only going to be out of the car near traffic for just a minute, which is about sixty times longer than a crash takes to happen.
  • And for reason’s sake, stay off the phone while you’re driving—even if you have a hands-free unit, which doesn’t actually address the problem. The distraction of a phone conversation results in driving attention impairment much more severe than if you’re talking to someone in the car, and the impairment is mostly cognitive, not physical.

Bicyclists with safety gear

Bicyclists:

  • Reflectorize yourself and light yourself up! Wear light, bright colors and reflectors.
  • Install white lights and reflectors on the front of your bike, red lights and reflectors at the rear, and amber reflectors and lights to the sides. Blinking lights are a popular but unwise idea if they’re by themselves; they’re okay if they’re right next to steady-burning lights, which allow drivers to accurately keep track of your position, direction, and speed.

Pedestrians:

  • You can see a car’s lights at a far greater distance than the driver can see you. Deliberately practice consciously overriding the automatic assumption that if you can see them, they can see you. They can’t!
  • Because of that, don’t jaywalk! Use crosswalks. Wait for the walk signal.
  • Walk against vehicular traffic—that is, walk facing cars, so they can better see you and you them.
  • Wear light, bright colors and at least one reflector. Stripes along your elbows and knees are best, but even just a simple hang-tag reflector or reflectorized shoes will be better than nothing—and in fact, even those simplest and smallest of things will make a giant improvement; see here and scroll down. I got some hangtag-type reflectors on lanyards (https://www.pedestrianreflectors.com/hard-prism-reflectors/) and clipped them to the waist-level side pockets of the jackets I most often wear. In daylight I just drop ’em in the pockets, and when it gets dark I fling ’em out. They’re not in my way as they swing on the lanyards while I walk, adding movement to the bright reflection drivers will see.
  • At the very least, don’t do thoughtless things like going out at night in black or dark clothing—then you’re almost impossible for drivers to see until they’re nearly upon you.

Parents:

  • Check your kids’ bikes for adequate lights and reflectors, and get them reflectors for when they’re walking or biking (and see that they use them, like it or not—just like seatbelts and bike helmets).
  • Check their cars for modified lights, and quiz them if you think they might have made changes. Any deviation from original equipment should be viewed with extreme skepticism because there’s a mountain of unsafe junk on the market, all promoted as “upgrades” and almost every bit of which is unsafe and illegal. They include everything from blackout/tint sprays and covers to trinkets shaped like headlamp or taillamp assemblies to improper types and colors of bulbs. Car lights are life-safety equipment, not fashion toys—that should go without saying, but the teenage mind doesn’t work the way the adult mind does; the parts of the brain that assess risks and consequences, as well as long-term thinking, don’t come fully online until our early to mid-20s, so kids need assistance on that front.

Everyone:

  • Do what you can to bring the day we’ll scrap this tiresome, deadly, baseless, annoying biannual time-tinkering. When you hear someone wish for year-round standard time, take the opportunity to educate them—they’ve got the right idea, just the wrong way around. Talk about it…and pass it on!

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Daniel Stern is an expert vehicle lighting consultant based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Seattle. He serves as an expert witness, actively participates in technical standards development and research bodies, has contributed text to regulations in several countries and territories, and has attended the United Nations vehicle lighting regulation working group at the invitation of its president. He collects technically and historically significant car lamps, helps drivers safely upgrade their cars’ lighting, and serves as Chief Editor of the industry’s technical journal, DrivingVisionNews.

See Daniel’s posts on vehicle lighting on Driving in the Real World: Part 1: Lighting the Way with Guest Daniel Stern and Part II.

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