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Here's Why So Many Cars Drive Around With Their Headlights off at Night

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author photo by Doug DeMuro May 2017

Have you noticed, recently, a huge explosion in the number of idiots you see driving around without their headlights on at night? When I was younger, this never happened -- but in recent years, I've been seeing it more and more, to the point where I was on a dark highway the other night, and I swear a full 5 percent of vehicles didn't have their headlights on. And I believe I've discovered the reason.

That reason is lighted gauge clusters.

Allow me to explain. Back when I was younger, and when you were younger, the way gauge clusters (or "instrument panels") worked is that they were oppressively dark unless you turned on the headlights. This had two purposes: one, you didn't really need the thing to be lit up unless it was nighttime, so it removed some complexity. And two, at night, you always remembered to turn on your headlights.

Not anymore.

If you get into the vast majority of modern automobiles, you will discover the gauge cluster stays lit at all times -- during the day, in direct sunlight, at night and regardless of whether the headlights are on or off. So what happens is people climb into their cars at 8 p.m., they're driving through a well-lit area such as a city center or a nicely illuminated interstate, and they don't turn on their lights. Why should they? They can see just fine, and the gauge cluster is all lit up, so they can see the gauges, too. There's absolutely no reminder their headlights haven't come on.

This whole situation is being made worse by this new trend of LED running lights. The problem here is that the LED running lights are always on, and they illuminate the road a little bit. So the person gets into the car, the gauge cluster is lit up like the headlights are on, and the running lights are lit up, showing some road illumination. It's not perfect, but neither are most drivers, and they just accept it and move on.

Now at this point you may be wondering ... is this really that big of a deal? After all, if bright LEDs are turned on in front, and if the gauge cluster is illuminated, exactly how much of a danger could this person possibly be? Their headlights may not be on, but the LEDs aren't that much worse than headlights -- right?

But there's a problem. When you're driving around with your headlights off and your gauge cluster lit up and your LED running lights on, you can see reasonably well -- but your taillights aren't lit up. So a car in this situation is virtually impossible to see on a dark road, or basically anywhere other than in a well-lit area. Obviously, the license-plate light isn't on either, making it impossible to see the plate when the kind of person who drives a car in this manner commits an inevitable driving infraction on the road.

So what do we do about this? I honestly think the answer is that we might need to, at some point soon, mandate automatic headlights in all vehicles. Automakers will never back away from lighted gauge clusters because they allow for more design and style to be integrated into that area -- and LED lights are here to stay. And I think we can all agree on something: The only way we can get certain people to do certain things is if we simply do those things for them. Bring on the automatic headlights!

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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Here's Why So Many Cars Drive Around With Their Headlights off at Night - Autotrader